Student autism activist Lydia Brown (COL ’15) organized a panel that addressed disability culture in the classrooms and mainstream society in Intercultural Center Wednesday.

The panel, titled “Disability and Inclusion in the Humanities,” included Elizabeth J. Grace, an assistant professor in Diversity in Learning and Teaching at National Louis University, Director of Ableism Awareness and Community Outreach for the Disability Rights Coalition at American University Ki’tay Davidson, Disability Center planning committee member Renleigh Martin Spencer (COL ’15) and Kassiane A. Sibley, associate editor of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.”

Brown said that her personal experiences motivated her to create the event and encourage more discussion on enabling those who are disabled.

“I wanted to talk about how we can move away from just providing the bare minimum assistance required by law and really create a culture of inclusion for disabled people,” she said.

The panelists discussed the culture of ableism — prejudice against people with disabilities — at academic institutions and ways that schools ignore the needs of people who identify as disabled.

“When you are diagnosed, you are not a person who has agency,” Grace said. “Suddenly you are a person who has behaviors and not a person who has agency.”

Sibley described her own experiences as an autistic student.

“I have to explain to my professors every day that my … condition is the human condition. I am a person too,” Sibley said.

The panelists said that academic institutions are often reluctant to embrace disability awareness.

“We had a large number of [disabled students] at our schools, and they were asked to prove that they needed whatever it was that they needed,” Grace said of disabled students at National Louis University.

Davidson added that society must do more to embrace difference.

“A medical understanding of disability is not enough,” Davidson said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘What services do you need?’ We need to bring it into the cultural realm.”

Spencer added that she thinks the inclusion of disability studies in academia will promote disability culture in larger society.

“Any sort of identity studies should come first,” Spencer said. “We need to understand oppression. That is why disability studies [are] very important.”

The panelists also explained that well-intentioned allies and institutions make mistakes that contribute to the culture of exclusion.

“All of these micro-aggressions happen in places that are very progressive and claim to be very open to disability rights and are very considerate of other identities,” Sibley said.

“Sometimes we don’t want the type of help that you are trying to give.”

Davidson said that self-advocacy, student support and increased understanding can pave the way for a culture of inclusion.

“Self-advocacy is important, when it does not turn into victim-blaming,” Davidson said. “Let’s say, for example that I have a label like Autistic. The way that I would explain autism is [very] different [from] how others would explain it. So we need to stop making it medical, so that it isn’t if you have met one autistic person, you have met all autistic people.”

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