Students establish safe spaces to discuss disability issues at Wheaton

Hannah Zack ’18, Jessica Chaikof ’19, Hannah Newmarch ’20 and Sage Michaud ’18 have been steadily working to form a new on-campus club: WheaAccess. This club aims to create a safe space for students who identify as disabled, and to bring light to disability issues on campus; according to Zack, the club president, “First and foremost, this campus needs a space to discuss disability.”

Chaikof added, “One of the biggest issues Hannah and I have had is that Wheaton is a very diverse campus – we have students of color, international students, students practicing different religions, a variety of student sexual orientations – and most of the time when we talk about diversity, those are the topics that come up. But rarely does anything [come up] about disability in terms of diversity.”

Zack elaborated, “There’s spaces for differents groups on campus, but there is nothing for the minority of disabled students.”

Chaikof continued, “There is this huge population of about 300 [disabled] students [who] maybe feel marginalized and not acknowledged…there is no club on this campus for these students. That’s one of the reasons Hannah and I decided to make WheaAccess.”

Chaikof stated that the main goals of the club will focus on creating a safe space for students identifying as disabled, and educating those who aren’t. She acknowledges that while the problems brought up in club meetings cannot always be solved by herself or the other executives, they can still provide resources and support for students in an understanding space.

Chaikof and Zack seek to provide a safe space and community where students can feel recognized and understood. According to Zack, “College is about finding our people and ourselves, and what can you do if there’s no space for a group to mobilize?”

Another priority for WheaAccess is in the name: access. Though the Wheaton campus is known for its beauty and history, it provides real challenges to those with physical disabilities. Accessibility has been incorporated into the more recently constructed buildings; however, the older residence halls and educational buildings have yet to be renovated. Buildings such as Park Hall and Knapton – specifically Knapton Lecture – are spaces in which students are expected to be able to move freely, yet are still inaccessible to some. Zack said that “[t]here is a need for conversation on campus” surrounding these issues.

Zack explained, “Whether it’s through policy, suggestions to the administration or movie screenings to provide people a different perspective,” the club seeks to bring light to disability issues and provide “a space for discussion, not even just for disabled students, [but] for whoever wants to participate.”

“Our main goals include making this campus more accessible because there are still issues on this campus about accessibility,” said Chaikof. “For example, students in wheelchairs struggle getting to Chase, Watson and Meneely, because the hills are steep. The thing is, many people don’t think about it, because they don’t have to think about it if they’re walking.” She admitted, “I didn’t have to think about it myself because my disability is more sensory. I have vision and hearing impaired issues.”

Her point is clear and important: it’s easy for those who are able-bodied to not think about these issues because they don’t have to. This is a privilege.

In addition to addressing accessibility on campus, Zack seeks to discuss other components of disability rights, especially intersectionality within disability. Zack said, “The intersection of race and disability is incredibly important and rarely discussed.” She elaborated that, because of this, the club is “looking to collaborate with other organizations on campus, including BSA and CHILL House.”

In conclusion, Zack mentioned how she participated in advocacy work this summer and wishes to share her findings with the campus. She highlighted the importance of voting. stating,  “Voting is so important; it’s a privilege. Disabled people are a collective group who rely on their lawmakers. People don’t understand how things affect other people.”

Zack further talked about voting in the context of being an ally to the disabled. Both her and Chaikof also stressed the role of the ally in discussing disability issues. Chaikof said, “Allied people can also be more understanding and willing to meet certain places. Really be there for them, and don’t just say ‘do you need help?’ because they’ll say they’re okay – just be there for them, be present in that moment and be conscious of your actions.”

WheaAccess met for the first time on Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. in the Balfour Media Center, and will meet every week at the same time. All students are welcome and encouraged to attend and join, regardless of ability.