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Collecting stories, increasing disability awareness

November 22, 2019

In just over a week, the busy hallways and quiet study nooks of the College will have a new addition: a collection of stories from the Bowdoin community relating to disability hung all across campus.

In hopes of increasing visibility on International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPWD) on December 3, the DisAbled Students Association (DASA) is asking faculty, students and staff to contribute submissions expressing their own experiences or those of friends and loved ones.

“What we want is for [the stories] to be human, to give people someone to relate to,” said DASA member Thais Carillo ’23. “I think a lot of people are afraid to ask questions because they don’t want to be offensive or cross a line. The goal, as I see it [is] to lay [the topic of disability] out there, and hopefully have [the campus] interact with it.”

Although the project brings personal experiences to the forefront of discussion around disability, members of the Bowdoin community may choose to submit anonymously. The stories will also be turned into a slideshow and shown on a screen in David Saul Smith Union, outside the Bowdoin Express. Representatives from the Student Accessibility Office, DASA and the Accessibility Taskforce, a group comprised of faculty, staff and students, will table in Smith Union throughout the day next to the slideshow.

Student and staff from the three groups will be available to engage in conversations about accessibility, disability, accommodations or personal experiences. The Accessibility Task Force also plans to host an open forum lunch in the Hutchinson Room in Thorne Hall, and student panelists will speak about experiences with disability later that evening in Moulton Union.

Benjamin Wu ’18 will moderate the panel. Wu has been involved with accessibility efforts since his first year at the College. When Wu first arrived on Bowdoin’s campus, he found that awareness regarding disability was extremely limited. Neither DASA nor the Student Accessibility Office existed at the time, and the Accessibility Task Force had a much smaller presence.

“I came into Bowdoin with some needs, and at that time, I had to work a lot with the dean,” Wu said.  “I was originally [in the] Class of 2018. I’ve gained exposure through talking about these issues, and then when the taskforce formed I became really involved and have continued to do so.”

In the past, DASA’s mission has been first and foremost about building community and functioned like an affinity group with biweekly dinners. This emphasis began to change last year under the leadership of Spencer Wilkins ’21 and Ari Mehrberg ’20.

“When we were co-leading last year, we talked a lot about what the events are that we can attach the DASA name to,” Wilkins said.

Ultimately, last year DASA decided to keep its programming to just dinners, but these conversations planted the seed for the group to raise its visibility in the future.

The panels, open forum and postering planned for December 3 mark a shift in the mission of the group, which is now increasingly action-oriented. This year, the group is led by Mehrberg and Maddie Hikida ’22, who worked in conjunction with Marcus Williams ’21, Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) chair for diversity and inclusion to bring actor Patrick Dempsey to campus. Dempsey, who played the character known colloquially as “McDreamy” on the television series “Grey’s Anatomy,” delivered a keynote address on his experiences with dyslexia for No Hate November.

Former DASA leader Spencer Wilkins ’21 hopes that the group’s programming will change discourse around disability at Bowdoin.

“There are so many people who I’ve talked to who don’t speak about [disability] in their regular life,” Wilkins said. “It doesn’t factor in whatsoever. My goal would be that they should feel comfortable with it in their daily life, that it doesn’t have to be something they feel ashamed of.”

A collaboration between DASA and Director of Student Accessibility Lesley Levy may also be in the works to establish a disability mentorship program.

“Our big thing is trying to figure out our place on campus—if we’re more of an affinity group or if we’re more an activism group,” Hikida said. She hesitated to categorize the stories collected for IDPWD as an activist effort, expressing hope that instead the project will start a conversation. Going forward, Hikida said, DASA aims to “listen to the needs of the community.”


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