5C group tackles disability issues and works to build allies

Students from the Disability, Illness and Difference Alliance (DIDA) paint a mural on Walker Wall celebrating disability and body positivity on Feb. 23. (Donnie TC Denome • The Student Life)

The Disability, Illness and Difference Alliance, a 5C group for disabled students and their allies, is working to promote awareness surrounding disability issues, confront ableism and improve the experiences of disabled students on campus.

Led by co-presidents Manya Singh SC ‘19, Donnie Denome PZ ‘20 and Carly Hanna SC ‘22, DIDA previously focused on changing policies to ease the accommodation process for disabled 5C students, which includes students asking for extended time on exams, note-taking assistance and early access to class readings. (Disclaimer: Denome is TSL’s opinions editor.)

But Singh said last year’s advocacy efforts were largely unsuccessful. Because most schools weren’t responsive to policy proposals, she said, the group is turning its emphasis toward forming stronger allies and gaining support from younger leadership, while increasing active participation.

This year, DIDA will be holding events like ally training, a Halona retreat, Disability Day of Mourning Vigils, a Motley gathering and a pool party to destigmatize disability and celebrate all body types. It plans to continue its Disability Speaker Series, which brings professionals, activists and disabled people to campus to discuss current issues regarding disability.

“We’re going to try and make [events] as fun and uplifting as possible,” Singh said. “We know the campuses are full of politically minded people who are really passionate, and I think disability just hasn’t been an issue that’s at the forefront of people’s minds. … If you’re interested in politics, or you’re interested in sociology [or] women’s studies, all of those things are encompassed in disability rights, too.”

To combat ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities, Singh believes the colleges should implement more “universal design” classrooms that would allow general accessibility to all disabled students — including those with limitations in hearing, vision, speech, learning and mobility.

She cited the importance of installing microphones, door openers, working elevators and air conditioning in buildings for cases in which too low or too high temperatures could be threatening to students’ health, such as those with severe allergies.

Singh said Pomona College is still setting up braille signs for blind students and there are currently no available interpreters on 5C campuses to support deaf speakers who require sign language. She said she had to personally search through a registry to find an interpreter for Benjamin Lewis, a deaf lecturer in American Sign Language from UCLA, who spoke at the speaker series.

Singh said that disabled students sometimes have to deal with other people’s ignorance; for instance, professors may “out” students by telling them to put their laptops away if they don’t have accommodations.

DIDA also hopes to address what it perceives as a lack of health care on campus, as there are only three doctors available through Student Health Services.

Singh said students should have the freedom to identify however they’d like, since DIDA is inclusive of everyone, including those with disabilities, differences, acute or chronic illnesses, medical issues or mental illnesses.

“Within the club, we feel like ‘disability’ isn’t a bad word,” Singh said. “When it comes to choosing it as a label, there’s a certain degree of privilege that people like me with an invisible disability can [have]. Whereas other people with other kinds of disabilities that are visible or audible, you know, they can’t choose.”

DIDA’s co-presidents hope to increase club participation but recognize the difficulties of recruiting more students.

“I think because of the nature of disability and how much work it is just managing classes and all of your doctor appointments and all of your medical care, it’s hard for lots of disabled students on campus to be part of DIDA,” Singh said.

After Singh graduates, Hanna will take over the leadership role, along with other members. She said she hopes to revamp DIDA as a safe space for people to connect and understand each other. More importantly, she wants to strengthen relationships between students, administrators and faculty.

“We want DIDA to be a space for people across the spectrum [and] a space where we can critique the 5Cs and larger society and create creative solutions,” Hanna said. “Just because someone identifies as being disabled doesn’t mean that they’re hindered, or that they have a lower quality of life, or that they’re not in complete control of their future.”

Hanna emphasized the importance of enabling others to join the dialogue about disability issues without fear of navigating the language surrounding these conversations.

“I would really like there to be more conversations about disability; I would like all students to feel comfortable engaging about disability,” Hanna said.

Hanna’s personal health condition required her to undergo surgery two to three times a year; she said  she used to hide her illness by covering up any signs of its visibility. But she also realizes how liberating it can be to free herself by talking about her own experiences.

DIDA aims to help disabled students advocate for themselves, either by finding ways to address their needs or remaining approachable to students. The organization is confidential and has no obligation to report to administrators.

“[T]he other part of support we want to [provide] here is that, sometimes, it’s not the physical or mental barriers of disability that are most difficult for students,” Hanna said. “It can be the social barrier, and the stigmatization and ableism that is the hardest. … And we want to be a resource for both.”

For more information, students may visit DIDA’s Facebook public page, closed group and website, or email them directly at didaclaremont@gmail.com. Their weekly meetings are Sundays 3 p.m. at the Student Disability Resource Center located in Tranquada Student Services Building.

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