A student-led Disability Awareness Panel opened up a discussion about disability accessibility, available resources on campus for students with disabilities and the overall life and experiences of living with a disability.

On Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Disability Student Ambassadors hosted a panel discussion in the Whitehurst Living Room as part of Disability Awareness Week, which spans the week of Nov. 11-15. Disability Student Ambassadors is a campus organization that aims to bring awareness to disabilities and what it is like to be a UR student with a disability. 

Junior and president of the Disability Student Ambassadors Melissa Lewis, sophomore Esmeralda Castillo and senior Rhiannon Edwards sat on the panel, speaking about their personal experiences as students with disabilities and answering questions submitted by other students. About 45 students and faculty members attended the event.

The panel covered a range of topics related to living with disabilities, but two points stood out in the discussion: UR faculty and administration are largely supportive of the needs of students with disabilities, and these students want to urge others to think and speak with kindness and consideration about the disabled. 

The panelists talked about how certain remarks can come off as insensitive or offensive without intention, highlighting the need for more mindful speech surrounding disabilities. 

They praised the work of UR’s Disability Services office and the efforts of faculty and staff to be helpful and accommodating, but they had ideas for improvements that could be made around campus.

Castillo, who has a service dog that lives with her on campus, said the change that she would most like to see on campus would be the installation of signs enforcing the Virginia law that all dogs must be kept on leashes when they are off the owner’s property, because dogs on campus without leashes could be a distraction when her service dog is working. 

Lewis said she would like to see buildings on campus have more handicap-accessible entrances for those with disabilities.

Edwards advocated for more handicap parking on campus. 

Senior Samantha Jaeger attended the event and was grateful for the chance to hear the perspectives and opinions of students with disabilities at UR, she said.

“I’m kind of interested in becoming a disability ambassador, so I’m going to look more into the program,” Jaeger said. “I’m really glad they had an event like this, just to kind of have a dialogue, which is important.”

Tina Cade and Morgan Russell, director and associate director of Disability Services, respectively, advocate for disability accessibility alongside the Disability Student Ambassadors and are looking forward to the changes that could come from starting this dialogue, they said.

“U of R has come a very, very long way, especially with the terrain that we have, to accommodate our students,” Russell said. “So I would just say, U of R is ready, and Dr. Cade and myself have worked really hard with the disability advisers to make sure that the ambassadors have a voice, and that students with disabilities have a voice as well.”

Cade, Russell and the panelists encouraged students who feel like they may need disability support to contact UR’s Disability Services or the Disability Student Ambassadors. They emphasized the anonymity and discretion provided by Disability Services in the resources they can give to students.

Lewis said that while the panel was the main event for Disability Awareness Week on campus -- given that the ambassador program was still new -- she could picture the week expanding into something bigger in the future.

“I think this is where it starts,” Lewis said. “I think it starts with talking to a group of people, and you know, they’re going to talk to their friends, and their friends are going to talk to their friends, and we’re just kind of getting the word out that way. 

"Do I wish we could do something like this in front of the whole school? Yes, obviously, but it was a great starting point, and I’m really happy with how it went.”

Students, faculty or staff seeking disability resources and accommodations on campus should visit Disability Services for more information.

Contact news writer Lauren Guzman at lauren.guzman@richmond.edu.