Disabled Student Union contests against discrimination

Photo Credit: Rei Feeley

Earlier last month, a group of disabled students at Western Carolina University got together for the first time publicly to increase awareness of their faced discrimination on campus. Members of the group introduced themselves as a part of Disabled Students United (DSU). 

On Dec 4, DSU members carried out their first demonstration by assembling a booth with informative flyers regarding people with disabilities and marking out numerous multi-colored chalkings at WCU’s fountain.

A few chalkings were DSU’s messages to make their experienced discrimination known, like one that surrounded the fountain stating, “This chalking is to raise awareness of the harassment people with disabilities face on campus by sharing anonymous and verbal statements directed at them.” 

DSU put these statements down in chalk within direct quotations.

“Anything that was in quotations was either directly from a screenshot – word for word, or said to or about a member in-person,” DSU President Chris Hoag said.

Hoag said that most of the discriminatory remarks are seen through Yik Yak, an anonymous online platform, directly targeting disabled students at WCU.

Several members have been directly targeted online, with posts going as far as describing what they look like and stating derogatory comments about them, Hoag said.

Photo Credit: Rei Feeley

Some of these screenshotted quotes from Yik Yak said, “Stealing a cane is the most devious of licks,” “I swear not this many people need canes and wheelchairs,” and “I’m dressing up as a cane girl for Halloween.”

One member of DSU, Mason Deeney, told a story that they and DSU said evoked the feeling to start the group.

“I was leaving my psychology class in Coulter and going in front of Killian when someone had their phone out recording me, following me, laughing at me and pointing at my cane,” said Deeney. “I got very upset by this.”

Another YikYak comment put into a chalking said, “ ‘Ableist?’ You people come up with funny words.” 

Ableism is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities,” and DSU proclaimed this incident exemplifies exactly that.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Report on Disability, one-billion people – 15% percent of the world’s population – experience some type of disability. In the United States, the proportions are higher; about 61 million Americans or 25% of the population have some form of disability. 

Meaning ableism is no small matter in affecting a considerable amount of the population.

“Some people hide their disabilities because of things like ableism,” said DSU member Alyssa Persina.

Persina said that suppressing yourself in this way is often emotionally painful and draining.

“I have Tourette’s Syndrome – a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable ticks where there are movements, sounds, things like that,” she said. “As a person with Tourette’s, something we are taught is to hide – my entire life growing up, I was taught to hide myself and trick people into thinking nothing was wrong with me.” 

It isn’t fair that people like us should have to hide, and that is my biggest reason for advocating for the disabled community, Persina explained.

When further discussing the hiding of one’s disability, Hoag added, “I’ve seen people stop using their mobility aids because they’re afraid of being attacked.” 

Several DSU members also expressed their discontent with Western Carolina University’s administration regarding their ability to allocate services to the disabled community on campus consistently. 

Before laws like Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 were implemented, it was completely legal to refuse disabled people from government services and employment, attending public schools, and entering businesses. However, even with these long removed legal barriers, many people in the disabled community – DSU included – think large institutions, such as WCU, could do a better job at making the environment more accessible and conducive for people with disabilities.

WCU’s Office of Accessibility Resources (OAR), whose mission is to remove barriers and ensure equal access for all qualified students with disabilities, received criticism from DSU.

Highlighted complaints involving OAR from DSU were about a poor OAR website that “doesn’t explain things properly” and that OAR doesn’t meet the requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Photo Credit: Rei Feeley

Afterward, DSU expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of accessibility in many academic buildings.

One of our big goals is to make the buildings on campus more accessible, Hoag said.

An additional call for change by DSU concerned the perceived neglect some faculty and staff have towards non-abled people, which can, in some instances, include mental illness. 

Mental illness is not a disability by itself. However, there is a class of mental health disabilities called psychiatric disabilities. According to the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, mental illnesses that significantly interfere with major life activities, such as work and school, are considered disabilities. 

DSU Vice President Rei Feeley – who has severe anxiety, which is sometimes detrimental enough to keep her from attending class – described her experience of being unaccommodated in the classroom.

“I have severe anxiety and mental illness; in the past, some professors haven’t been understanding in that regard,” Feeley said. “There was one professor who didn’t take my mental illness seriously and expected me to be just as capable of coming to class as every other student.”

I nearly had to contest my grade because of this, even though I brought in medical notes, she said. 

Feeley conveyed the importance of faculty, staff and administration holding their students accountable when they exhibit discriminatory behaviors.

Suppose the school sees a student carry out a discriminatory act and has proof that it happened. In that case, the school needs to do something about it to ensure it doesn’t happen again, she said.

DSU recently held elections and will continue to hold events throughout the semester.

You can follow DSU on Instagram @disabledstudentsunited.