Ready and Able: Discussing Disability

Many people try to go through life as quietly as possible. It is sometimes difficult to cope with public attention; attracting such attention for reasons you cannot change is even harder.

I was once one of those people. I remember the nervousness I felt as a freshman coming to Georgetown. I had become comfortable with my middle and high school classmates. Before college, I tried to avoid leaving my comfort zone as much as possible. Transitions meant dealing with foreign situations and new people.

Don’t get me wrong – I love meeting new people – but I don’t like the formality of it. I used to be terrified of the handshake because I use my left hand. That is not the norm, but I have no other choice. The end of this month will mark my 12th year as a person with a disability. I used to fear that those few seconds of introduction would be the deal-breaker. How could I explain to the person on the receiving end that I had gotten into a car accident when I was younger, suffered severe nerve damage to my right arm and, to this day, am still unable to use it?

I didn’t want to make anyone feel awkward or uncomfortable. I wanted others to understand that I have a disability, that I had learned to adapt to it and that it doesn’t change who I am. Having a visible disability is like having a name – it says nothing about me as an individual but is one of my identifying factors. Ultimately, when I first arrived on the Hilltop, I wanted to know, “Will I be accepted at Georgetown?”

That question is not atypical. In fact, most students at Georgetown probably ask this question of themselves when they first set foot on campus.

I now know that the short answer to my question is “yes.” The community’s support of me has allowed me to become my own best advocate.

What are some of the things that come to mind when you hear someone has a disability? I have made it a point to challenge the negative connotations associated with disabilities and to fight the cultural stigma that still exists in our society.

With that purpose in mind, I am now trying to create a student group that brings together students with disabilities and their allies to foster a conversation on campus. I want to create a community that is open to everyone and that does not impose any obligation to disclose the specifics of personal disabilities.

I didn’t think this group’s success was probable, however, until I served on a student panel at the “Accessing Differences: New Politics and Pedagogies of Disability” conference this October. I presented the idea, and the response I received from the audience was overwhelmingly supportive. I think programs such as that conference and Pluralism in Action are perfect springboards for sparking dialogue on disability awareness. But the conversation shouldn’t end there.

Our working group met for the first time last week, and I’m hoping for an early spring launch. The group, diversABILITY, has a two-fold purpose: First, we want to raise disability awareness on campus, and second, we want to reshape current conceptions of what it means to have a disability. This concept was born out of discussions of diversity during resident assistant training. We were asked to cut out slices of a pie based on our social identities. I was struck by the fact that “disability” made up almost half my pie, but for some of my peers, being “fully abled” was something they had never really thought about. Part of the problem is more simply a lack of awareness; students often don’t consciously think about what it means to be disabled. Let’s open our eyes and help everyone feel accepted at Georgetown.

Tiffany Yu is a senior in the McDonough School of Business.

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