Community is one of Saint Leo University’s core values. To some, it might just be the most meaningful of all with individuals supporting each other regardless of their circumstances.
This year, the diverse Saint Leo community came together for several events throughout the week of Oct. 12 to recognize Disability Awareness Week. The theme was ‘Building Inclusive Communities.’
Planning the Weeklong Celebration
The weeklong celebration of diversity, inclusion, and equal access was spearheaded by Saint Leo’s Office of Accessibility Services. Michael Bailey, the director of the OAS, and Maria Santos, the assistant director of accessibility services, helped plan many of the activities.
Disability Awareness Week is part of Disability Employment Awareness Month, a nationally recognized month to raise awareness about the need for employers to equally consider job candidates with disabilities for employment. In addition, Invisible Disabilities Week falls during the week of Oct. 18.
Bailey says that specific departments and individuals have certainly recognize the week in the past, but he wanted his team to take a much broader approach for it this year.
“If we want accessibility to be part of the DNA of Saint Leo University, we wanted to make this event part of the entire community,” he says. “It’s not just about raising awareness that people with disabilities exist. It’s more about how we can make our university a better and more inclusive place for a very diverse community.”
According to Santos, she borrowed some ideas from a former position she held with Tallahassee Community College.
“I got to work with a variety of student populations in my last role,” Santos says. “I used some of those ideas for our Disability Awareness Week events. I know everyone loves trivia, and I thought it made sense to also show a movie that offered subtitles and audio description. I chose activities that would be accessible to all audiences and that students could go back and find at a later time as well.”
Bailey explains how the events tied in the broader community.
“The events we came up with were also designed to leverage our community partners and other community members outside of Saint Leo,” he says.
A Successful Trivia night Event
A trivia event was one activity held during Disability Awareness Week. Its main focus was disability rights in the workplace.
“We wanted to collaborate with Career Services on this one so we could educate students about the ADA and how it applies to employees with disabilities in the workplace,” Santos explains. “We also wanted it to be an engaging and interactive activity.”
She was pleasantly surprised on how well the students did in the virtual event.
“The students did very well and knew a lot more about the ADA and workplace disability rights than we might have expected,” she says.
The trivia event was also part of the Discovery Challenge, an activity through which participants could earn points from their participation in the week’s events.
Due to the tremendously low unemployment rate among people with disabilities, Bailey hopes an event like this would also raise awareness on this issue and put a spotlight on what people can do to advocate for themselves when seeking and maintaining employment.
Expressions Through Art and Video Projects
Two unique projects were also included in the Discovery Challenge. The Community Art Project called for submissions of artwork that represent inclusion in the community.
“We gave a lot of leeway on this art project and mainly wanted to focus on the theme of community,” Santos says. “We got several submissions that demonstrate empathy by either including the word ‘empathy’ in them or representing it symbolically.”
Several students submitted pieces of art created electronically while others created hand-drawn imagery. The pieces are currently on display in the Student Community Center at University Campus, along with information on many of the resources discussed during Disability Awareness Week.
The other project was for participants to create a video demonstrating the use of American Sign Language (ASL). Each participant had to finger-spell his or her name and indicate being an ally of the deaf community.
“Last year, we were fortunate to have the Educational Interpreter Project come to our area,” Bailey says. “For this video project, Janet VanGuilder and Jennifer Francisco came up with the idea and created some resources for it. We wanted to make it interactive and tie it into our social media pages.”
He loved how most of the submissions came from individuals who traditionally do not communicate using sign language.
“Most of the people are not fluent in ASL, but they were willing to put themselves out there and demonstrate their desire to be an ally of the deaf community.”
According to Santos, the project was great for social media.
“We were able to increase our Instagram following and more importantly keep the momentum going of raising awareness,” she says.
A Powerful Documentary and Panel Discussion
The screening of Crip Camp was part of the week as well. The Netflix documentary explores a camp for kids with disabilities that was held from the 1950s until the late 1970s and how several of the campers would later band together to advocate for disability rights. Santos originally saw an ad for the documentary on Facebook.
“I found out about this documentary right when we were talking about what events we wanted to do for Disability Awareness Week,” she says. “We thought it would be a great fit to show it during this week. It is such a comprehensive portrayal of accessibility, Section 504, the ADA, and the individual experiences of those across all sub-communities within the broader disability community.”
Bailey says he was immediately on board with showing it.
“This movie is so humanizing because it does not paint people with disabilities in the stereotype of being a hero in our society. It also shows how well these individuals can relate to each other when they’re all together in the same environment, and it does a great job documenting the tremendous work that went into the passage of several disability rights laws.”
A virtual panel discussion followed the screening featuring speakers with a variety of backgrounds and challenges. These included Saint Leo students Katie Huettel, a senior theater major, and Keith Blackwelder, a software engineering student. Greg Lindberg from the university’s enrollment marketing team, Jennifer Francisco from Pasco County Schools and the Educational Interpreter Project coordinator, and Brenda Aviles, a University of North Texas doctoral student who works in accessibility, were also part of the discussion.
“We wanted to represent Saint Leo students and staff, along with some voices from outside of our university community,” Bailey explains. “We also wanted people who have taken an active role in advocacy for people with disabilities and could speak authentically about their own experiences. We got some great insight from each panelist.”
The panelists covered everything from how people with disabilities should be represented in the current social justice movement to why a person with a disability should be cast in movies and TV shows rather than actors portraying such individuals.
(Watch the entire panel discussion here.)
The Big Takeaways from Disability Awareness Week
Santos and Bailey hope students and all participants in the weeklong activities walked away with a more accurate perception of the world around them.
“Our goal was to raise awareness, not just about our office and its services on campus,” Santos says. “We want our entire community to be culturally aware of those with disabilities. We also want to stress the importance of accessibility and what it truly means for equal access.”
For Bailey, he hopes this awareness will also help demonstrate the potential for change.
“We want everyone to see that there are very practical things in our society that we can actually control and change for the better.”
He has already seen some examples of this on campus.
“About a year ago, a faculty member came to us and expressed the need to offer more access to students with hearing impairments. So, we were able to work on getting an assistive listening system installed. We want people to come to us and tell us what they are observing so we can determine what can be done to improve accessibility in our community.”
It all comes down to increased awareness and communication, he says.
“Too often, people with disabilities are told not to speak up. We want them to have a voice and advocate for what is right. Nobody is ever perfect at knowing someone’s needs because everyone is unique, and the disability community is not monolithic. This is why the only way to understand is to have conversations that are both respectful and productive.”