Michelle Xu

In mid-September, both Copley elevators broke down, stranding every physically disabled student living on campus. After the Healey Family Student Center opened this semester, it took over a month for automatic buttons to be installed in the only available entrance. Last spring, a deaf student was denied access to American Sign Language interpretation for a sponsored test prep course. Two years ago, when Regents Hall opened, the first-floor elevators were located behind two heavy doors with no automatic button.

Before that, the Braille sign for the LGBTQ Resource Center was above the doorframe. A blind student requesting Braille materials was outright denied. Prospective students using wheelchairs were told they would have to be carried during a campus tour because of physical inaccessibility.

Every semester, I am contacted by students being forced away from Georgetown through involuntary medical leaves of absence. These students, many of whom have disabilities, are disproportionately drawn from gender, sexual and racial minorities.

These incidents are connected to the common theme of ableism — systematic, institutionalized prejudice against disabled members of societies that values certain kinds of bodies and minds over others.

For more than two years, I have been advocating for the creation of a Disability Cultural Center as a complement to our existing diversity centers. The administration has failed to acknowledge the proposal, let alone commit to any plan for a DCC. A DCC would serve as a central hub for disabled students and allies, disability studies resources, involvement in disability rights and social justice work as well as provided an additional community and pride for those with disabilities.

In spring 2014, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson and Academic Resource Center Director Jane Holahan formed a working group on disability as a social justice issue. We are about to have our third meeting, and so far there has not been one concrete commitment to any changes, neither policy changes that require no funding to implement nor those with significant financial implications. The administration has consistently taken only the most minimal steps necessary to create the appearance of change while offering little of substance.

A large part of our reluctance to engage in disability issues stems from general ignorance of ableism on campus in addition to broader society. Students otherwise concerned with social justice frequently know little of the ongoing struggle to eliminate subminimum wage for those with disabilities, high rates of police brutality and criminalization of disabled individuals of color, legal structures that prevent the disabled (especially those who identify with the LBGTQ community) from exercising sexual agency and disabled parents from keeping their children, in addition to rampant medical abuses and widespread denial of life-saving treatment for those with disabilities.

Back on campus, Holahan told The Hoya last spring that she believes ableism does not exist at Georgetown.

“Are some people feeling that people with disabilities are being looked down upon? That people are being discriminated against?” she said.“I don’t see that. I will say that in respect to the individuals who might see that, that’s a perception they have, and I have to respect that perception.”

Quite frankly, it is appalling that the university official theoretically responsible for advocating for students with disabilities does not recognize the ableism underpinning every relevant issue.

In a November 2002 interview for the Voice, Holahan responded to disabled students’ criticisms by insisting that change is gradual.

“Not everything will be solved overnight,” she said.

Twelve years later, in a town hall meeting last week, Olson reiterated the same cop-out. Given the apparent attitude that vocal student activists’ departure after their graduation negates the need for permanent change, it is not surprising we have made frustratingly little progress.

Right now, our administration is capable of committing to both immediate and long-term changes to confront the ableism that deeply pervades our campus community:

First, commit to a firm timeline for a Disability Cultural Center, including space, financial and personnel considerations.

Second, provide increased curricular support to courses focused on disability studies, with a long-term plan for a disability studies minor.

Third, create a transparent, central funding mechanism and hire a dedicated staffer to coordinate ASL interpretation and related services at public programming sponsored by university entities.

Fourth, reform involuntary medical leave of absence to eliminate the current closed-doors, coercive and discriminatory process and implement a student-centered, transparent process with room for negotiation.

Fifth, conduct an immediate public review of physical accessibility of campus infrastructure, including transportation, housing, administrative buildings, academic buildings and open spaces — and initiate any necessary renovations to remedy areas of inaccessibility.

The provost’s support for the first Disability Cultural Month, the formation of a working group and increased awareness of disability issues on campus are good signs. But these are only starting points, and real change must take place before Georgetown can claim to be genuinely committed to diversity and inclusion.

Lydia Brown is a senior in the College. She is the GUSA Undersecretary for Disability Affairs, and co-founder of the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective.


  1. wejkrwejlkrj says:

    This is not a financially sound argument. The benefits that it produces, although certainly present, are grossly outweighed by the costs. Other issues could be solved with the funds squandered in this initiative.

    • The benefit of illuminating human dignity and making opportunities accessible to everyone seems worthy of funding… especially in light of investments to new athletic centers etc. Keep kicking ass, Lydia!

    • Any framework under which civil rights and inclusion is “too expensive” and in fact considered a waste obviously has its priorities wrong.

      • I second what SMN said. I don’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that there was plenty of hand-wringing about cost when the CMEA, the Women’s Center, and the LGBTQ Resource Center proposals were floated, too. They’re still chronically underfunded, and now under threat of ham-handed “consolidation.” But at least they exist, and our campus is better and more inclusive because of their presence.

        Certainly, disabled people have grown quite accustomed to hearing our civil rights described as an onerous financial burden. That doesn’t make it acceptable, however.

  2. Anonymous Hoya says:

    Speaking as a student with multiple disabilities, I’m afraid I just don’t feel the same way about campus culture. In my opinion, there is a great deal of difference between stupidity/lack of foresight and ableism, and to deny this would be absurd. Placing a Braille sign in a stupid location or forgetting that putting an elevator behind heavy doors is not willful discrimination, it’s just stupidity. I’m guilty of the same, not realizing that students in wheelchairs would have trouble seeing over the counters at Leo’s until my friend pointed it out. Does that make me ableist, or human?

    • Ableism is both prejudice and unfairness. Let’s not forget that most places are built with “normal” people in mind. And it’s easy to see why that’s the case! But when things are made solely with “normal” people in mind, it does two things. First, it creates an unfairness. Second, it excludes people with disabilities from your definition of “normal.” Of course, the people making those things aren’t intentionally being ableist. However, the circumstances that people with disabilities face because of these inaccessible things or places are ableist. So while you’re not actively discriminating against those with disabilities, you’re passively discriminating against those with disabilities, if that makes sense.

  3. As a person with a disability the fact that the cultural center (which they want the university to pay for) is the first priority is really offensive and why I can’t stand the disability movement in its current form. The one and only priority should be fixing accessibility issues, if you fix that, all the “ableism” you cited goes away.

    Please stop accusing people of being something they don’t know anything about. You do not speak for all PWDs, so please stop using real issues to push this ableist agenda garbage. Do you really want the disability movement to be an offshoot of all the other culture wars? I don’t, I want to get things done, not get bloodied by fighting a war with nothing to show for it. You don’t begin a conversation with people by insulting them. It is our responsibility to point out access issues so they can be fixed, able bodied people aren’t mind readers and don’t deal with our issues on a day to day basis, help them, don’t insult them.

  4. It’s unfortunate that more than one commenter here believes all disability issues at Georgetown could be resolved simply by pointing out access issues. Disabled students have doing exactly that for well over a decade, and yet the same problems keep coming up. There’s a wide gulf between simple ignorance and stubborn, willful ignorance, and it should be clear by now that the Georgetown administration as a whole sits squarely on the wrong side of that chasm.

    In this case, “lack of foresight” and carelessness themselves constitute discrimination. If we are not consulted and our needs are not considered and met by the administration as a matter of course, we are being actively marginalized. Whether the administration actually intends to harm us is irrelevant. What matters is the outcome, and the outcome is consistently discriminatory.

    Plenty of colleges and universities across the country do disability access and inclusion considerably better than Georgetown, often with far smaller budgets. It’s time to quit making excuses and step up our game.

  5. I think someone actually said the cost would far outweigh the benefits here? I am disabled and can tell you from my personal experience that this is a very horrible thing to read. The disabled are people and we deserve to have accessibility to what we are paying for. We deserve college educations and the “full” college experience as much as everyone else. Saying the cost is more important dehumanizes us. It shouldn’t be so expensive that it puts the legitimate needs of the disabled aside.

  6. The priorities before political agendas should be:
    * identify all handicapped access issues, beginning with Lydia’s comprehensive list, then
    * prioritizing action on same in light of compliance with relevant DC fire safety regulations then
    * budgeting for followed by work on immediate municipal permitting and subsequent remedial action in respect to that list.

    The actual leverage the students have is not an appeal to administrators alleged moral sensibilities BUT rather a filing of fire code violation complaints with the applicable District authorities. Part of that filing can be a allegation that other issues may exist thereby inviting a code compliance inspection. The last thing anyone wants is a wheelchair occupant dying in a fire…or even injured in a panic-fueled response to a false alarm.

    Good luck, Don Walsh (Hoya Editorial Staff 1969-73, SFS ’73, L’76)

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