About a month ago, CSE asked if I would be willing to present during a training on accessibility in event planning. I said yes, enthusiastically yes. The outline for the event included an introduction from CSE, a presentation from our disability support services office on Georgetown's policies for accommodation requests, and a presentation from me about the importance of accessibility and inclusion, as well as an overview of the great diversity of possible alterations and accommodations that planners might consider when developing an activity or program.
I arrived on campus today to find the CSE person and the disability services person sitting at one table of eight arranged to form a large square. From the other end of the table, I could smell the fresh pizza in three boxes beside three crates of different types of soda. The tables were clean and polished, so white and bright they made a stark contrast with the muted hardwood floor. The room could easily hold over 100 people, and around 30 or 40 at the tables in the arrangement we had.
But there was no one there. Not one student organization sent even a single representative to attend the training. CSE had received no RSVPs in advance (though they weren't required), and there were absolutely no attendees trickling in even as the clock turned past 12:30.
Photo: Me wearing a white button-down dress shirt and khakis, standing alone inside the Herman Meeting Room with several tables and chairs inside the Healy Family Student Center.
The room was vast and I was small. I was alone in an empty room.
Nothing demonstrates more clearly the utter disregard that disabled people face every day at Georgetown than this. That of literally hundreds of student organizations with hundreds (possibly even creeping into the low thousands) of students involved on their boards or other leadership positions, not even one person deemed it worth their while to learn about access and inclusion.
Of course I recognize that there are many legitimate reasons that people can't attend midday trainings. They have work; they have classes; they have prior obligations; something comes up at the last minute; they didn't know about the specific event. But even if you make the generous assumption that 75% of all students involved in leadership with some or another club would have been unable to attend for some such reason, let's say the remaining 25% could have come and either knew about it or could have been told by someone else in their club's leadership about it. And no one came. How plausible is it that an event run by CSE, the administrative office responsible for oversight of all student organizations, is somehow off the radar of every single club on campus? That every single student involved in any leadership position whatsoever is simultaneously unavailable to attend a one-hour training?
It's not deliberate malice or cold contempt. It's casual indifference.
It takes very little to drive home just how little we matter in the grand scheme of things. And this is what the empty room means. The empty room means that our existence continues to be largely unacknowledged. The empty room means that our ability to participate fully in campus life isn't worth anyone's time. The empty room means that when we talk about improving conditions for disabled people, it's little more than lip service. The empty room means that no one cared enough to figure out how to go or send someone else in their stead. The empty room means that we don't matter. The empty room means another reminder of that fact, clawing into our consciences until we can't forget it for even one second, one brief slip of time.
Georgetown never fails to disappoint me. I attend an elite educational institution that has literally no excuse whatsoever to perpetuate inaccessible environments. Yet for all the talk of cura personalis, community in diversity, being men and women for others ... we continually fail to show even the most minimal concern for the wellbeing or meaningful inclusion of a particularly invisible community on the margins of campus life. The empty room means that the road ahead will be tortuous and long, that my work will never be done, that an entire collective of seven thousand-odd students, and thousands more faculty and staff, every one of us, remain complicit in this complicated system of ableism.
The empty room means that our fight is less against willful hate and more against the easy ignorance cloaked in the privilege of never having to live a disabled experience -- the privilege of never being guilted and shamed into going to an event that you lost the spoons for but had requested an interpreter for beforehand -- the privilege of never having to decide days in advance whether you will go to an event or not -- the privilege of never having to wonder whether you'll be able to access the handouts, presentation slides, or speech of the presenter -- the privilege of not worrying whether other attendees' perfumed products will induce an allergic reaction, meltdown, or physical illness -- the privilege of not sitting on edge in case something triggers a seizure -- the privilege of not thinking about whether something will surprise you by triggering a panic, anxiety, or PTSD attack -- the privilege of not having to think about whether you can even get into the fucking building -- the privilege of being able to go to any event you like, anywhere, with little difficulty or inconvenience except perhaps finding parking --
The empty room means that this state of affairs, a state of affairs in which our completely avoidable and unnecessary yet routine exclusion from programming on campus is simply ordinary.
Author's edit: Since 2012, I have been working in various ways to advance disability justice at Georgetown. I formed a committee of students advocating for the creation of a Disability Cultural Center. I am the first person ever to serve in GUSA (our student government) doing work on disability within the diversity section, and am currently serving a second consecutive term in that role. I have organized several events on different disability rights topics. I'm collaborating with faculty who are proposing creation of a Disability Studies minor. I am agitating all the time for better physical accessibility and accommodations policies for students with disabilities. I've interviewed dozens of people with connections to the university, past and present, on their experiences while disabled. Back in January 2014, I organized a conversation under hashtag #BDGU (Being Disabled at Georgetown University) in the footsteps of other such conversations on experiences of different racialized groups on elite college campuses.
I'm currently organizing a Lecture & Performance Series on Disability Justice. The first event was September 23, when Kassiane Sibley came to campus to discuss abuse of disabled people by caregivers/family members. The next event is October 21 and 22, with Leroy Moore from Krip Hop Nation and Sins Invalid, performing and speaking on police brutality against disabled people, especially disabled people of color.
So there has been progress, just very incremental and largely invisible to the larger community.