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Beyond Accommodations: Celebrating Student Voice and Disability Culture
As at many institutions, disability services at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, historically followed a compliance-based model, providing legally mandated accommodations for students with disabilities but lacking a spirit of inclusion. A paradigm shift occurred in summer 2014 when the Office of Disability Resources moved under Miami University’s Student Life division. At the same time, Andy Zeisler, the office’s longtime director and coauthor of this article, began efforts to revive a dormant student organization for disability advocacy. Coauthor Megan Zahneis arrived on campus in fall 2015 and, buoyed by Andy’s emphasis on student voice, became a founding member and copresident of the Students with Disabilities Advisory Council (SDAC). SDAC advocates for the disability community on campus through conversations with fellow students, faculty members, and other stakeholders.
We and others involved in founding SDAC—including Dan Darkow, the group’s advisor and a former graduate student who is now a full-time accommodation coordinator at our university—sought ways for students using disability services to provide feedback to the office and to build connections with each other. A third goal, spreading awareness of disability to the broader university community, emerged from early SDAC meetings.
To enhance communication between students with disabilities and instructors, who were often unsure of the best ways to assist them, SDAC founded its signature initiative, Coffee and Conversations. Held once a semester, the event features a panel of students sharing their experiences with disability on our campus with faculty. Its success encouraged SDAC to create a similar event for a student audience.
Another major SDAC initiative was the renovation of a classroom according to principles of universal design (The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, n.d.), intended to serve as a blueprint for accessible spaces across campus. Andy advised Megan and other SDAC members as they applied for and received a grant from Miami University to purchase accessible furniture and assistive technologies for this classroom. SDAC has also created a peer-to-peer mentorship program and hosted disability awareness events.
A Space for Disability Culture
In December 2017, Andy’s office received a major financial gift and was renamed the J. Scott and Susan MacDonald Miller Center for Student Disability Services. The Millers’ gift to students is earmarked for support “above and beyond” compliance, allowing the Miller Center staff to engage with students in new ways and financially support SDAC’s work.
The timing of the Millers’ gift coincided with SDAC’s ongoing efforts to celebrate disability as a form of diversity on an institutional level and establish a dedicated space for disability culture on campus. The Miller Center became a place for students with disabilities to find community, host meetings and social gatherings, and tap into institutional resources. The center offers free printing and coffee for students and welcomes visitors with artwork from local disabled artists and disability-specific literature, films, and documentaries.
Both the Miller Center and SDAC work closely with Miami University’s Disability Studies Program on programming for students with disabilities and allies. SDAC members serve as guest speakers and teaching assistants in disability studies courses, while the Miller Center collaborates with university donors Tom and Helen Welling, who endow a distinguished scholar position within the Disability Studies Program and an annual Disability Awareness Lecture Series in honor of their late daughter, Kate.
SDAC and the Miller Center are proud to affirm the lives and identities of students with disabilities as integral parts of both our university community and society.
The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. n.d. “The 7 Principles.” National Disability Authority, Ireland. http://universaldesign.ie/what-is-universal-design/the-7-principles.
Andy Zeisler is Director of the Miller Center for Student Disability Services and Megan Zahneis is an Undergraduate Student in Journalism, Interactive Media Studies, and Disability Studies, both at Miami University.