A place for community
In Madison, Fjelstad and a group of other UW–Madison students are working to launch the Disabilities Cultural Center as a community space for students with disabilities — much like cultural centers and student organizations on campus that serve individual student identities, such as the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Student Center, Black Cultural Center, Latinx Cultural Center, Indigenous Student Center and LGBTQ+ Crossroads, among others.
The Disabilities Cultural Center would not be another campus office about meeting access and accommodation requirements, but rather a space for students with disabilities to share and build community and a network of support, Fjelstad says.
The only space on campus currently related to students with disabilities is the McBurney Disability Resource Center, an office that works with students with disabilities to ensure access and accommodations are met for these students in classrooms and learning spaces.
Truly supporting students with disabilities means more than just accommodations though, Fjelstad says.
“Disability and disabled people only reside in the minds of the student body as associated with accommodations and with McBurney,” Fjelstad says. “But it’s so much more than that. We have a strong community and a culture and a history both nationally and on campus.”
Disability as identity
A central goal for the center is to help students with disabilities embrace themselves for who they are.
Fjelstad is passionate about helping others have pride in their disabilities and promote disability as a social identity “as opposed to individual medical issues.”
“There is this feeling that disability is like almost a burden on the individual and something that you have to overcome or fix or not talk about. And that can lead to a lot of feelings of shame, as it did for me for a long time,” she says.
Fjeltstad also hopes the center can promote disability as part of the larger discussions of diversity on campus.
“Because I think that often gets forgotten. When we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, it’s not just like ‘Oh, these people need accommodations,’ and that’s the end of the conversation,” she says. “It’s so much more than that, and I think that the DCC can help facilitate those conversations and also facilitate a more welcoming environment.”
The center would also provide programming to help foster conversations about issues facing the disabled community.
One of the ideas includes a disability and sex positivity event, Fjelstad says, which incorporates the discussion of sex and disability, a conversation often deemed taboo.
A common goal
The idea for the center was born out of the individual efforts of a number of different students including Fjelstad, as well as sophomore Emmett Lockwood, who was developing his own proposal for a cultural center for students with disabilities.
Lockwood refers to himself as multidisabled. He has autism, an optic nerve disorder that has left him without depth perception, 20% bilateral hearing loss, psoriatic arthritis that causes extreme joint pain, and an autoimmune disease called celiac that limits the types of foods Lockwood can eat.
He also went to a high school that was not ADA compliant and had little to no accommodations for students with disabilities.
“So I was obviously floored when I got on campus and the McBurney Center existed, and it helps me a lot as a student,” Lockwood says. “But, it still didn’t seem like UW had the aspect of disabled students existing outside of the realm of accommodations.”
The creation of the Disability Cultural Center was proposed to the Office of Student Affairs in December 2021 and approved the following spring semester.
Currently, the center resides in a conference room of the McBurney Disability Resource Center, space that the resource center donated to the cause.
While there isn’t a set open date, Lockwood says the group is getting close and in the process of getting furniture for the space.
But, there are still some funding and longevity logistics to work out with the Office of Student Affairs.
For the time being, the cultural center is operating on a donation basis through a larger pot of money donated to the McBurney Center. That is enough to sustain a full-time staff position and three student intern positions for the next couple of years, Lockwood says.
The student interns have already been hired, and the McBurney Center is in the process of filling the staff position.
After that, the goal is to secure funding through Student Affairs. Discussions are currently in the works for that.
Ultimately, the center will fill a current gap in spaces on campus where students with disabilities feel a sense of belonging and place.
“A Disability Cultural Center for me, would mean a space where I could just simply exist as a disabled student on campus without having to explain why I’m there, without needing to justify my existence to other students,” Lockwood says.
Wisconsin’s history with disability rights has proven effective, but the progress is continuously met with cultural resistance. Jones and the Great Lakes ADA are encouraged to see accessibility naturally built into current architecture and infrastructure through ramps and automatic doors.
The state has been a forerunner in concrete and accountable action, and yet the attitude towards disability seems perpetual. Jones continues to encounter attitudes that perceive people with disabilities as less than. In the era of diversity, equity and inclusion, disability often enters the conversation at the end as an afterthought.
Saubers builds on that concept and believes that the various movements for social justice were never meant to be siloed.
“We’re saying disability, but what does that include … We’re saying we want equity, justice, inclusion, accessibility. What do those things actually mean?” Saubers says, “We really need to make sure that … we’re moving in lockstep, and I don’t think that we really see that happening quite as effectively as it could right now.”
The only way forward is together.
Featured photo by Perri Moran.