Tech hosts 12th annual diversity symposium

Tech hosted its 12th annual Diversity Symposium on Sept. 9, 2020. The program included biographies of students, faculty and staff named into the 2020 “Faces of Inclusive Excellence.” // Photo courtesy of diversity.gatech.edu

The Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion organization held its 12th Annual Diversity Symposium on Wednesday via BlueJeans. Topics of conversation included accessibility on campus, the stigma surrounding disability and resources available at Tech.

On the panel was Dr. Cassie Mitchell of BME, Danny Housley of Tools for Life, Anne Jannarone of Student Disability Services, Denise Johnson Marshall of the Office of Compliance Programs and third-year CS student Trey Quinn.

The active inclusion of disabled students, faculty and staff at Tech is often overlooked.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law now in its 30th year, is officially followed by Tech, but in practice our community sometimes neglects the spirit of the law.

Housley gave the example of building ramps: if a wheelchair ramp is located at the back of a building by the garbage, it’s not truly an equally accessible entrance.

Dr. Mitchell added that Tech still has problems with ADA-compliant buildings.

“I can’t enter my own building independently and I’ve worked here for years. Try to get on the trolley –— it speaks volumes. Try to get off a high floor during an emergency when you are told not to use the elevator,” said Mitchell.

Although we focus on physical disability, we need to spread awareness about the social stigma surrounding disability. Housley elaborated that part of the prejudice against the disabled community stems from fear.
The culture of shame around disability grows when able-bodied people are scared to talk to disabled people.

When asked about the best language to discuss disability, Mitchell answered that “ironically, most disabled people are not really into the “politically correct” terms like ‘differently-abled.’ Saying ‘disabled’ is fine.”

Panelists went on to say that the language itself is much less important than the delivery of the interaction. Housley encourages students not to view disability as tragedy but as an aspect of a person’s life to which they adapt. He reminded everyone that it’s a rather silly stigma because we can all acquire a disability at any point.

Although we have some obvious barriers to inclusion at Tech, we’re also making strides.

Jannarone said that the “Division of Student Life is very committed to resourcing our office well to make sure that the accommodation needs of our students are met. I think there’s a positive sense of momentum that I feel –— I’ve been at the Institute for about a year and a half and I’ve seen that evidenced in a variety of ways.”

The issue of equal access for disabled members of the Tech community has become crucial during COVID.

When remote learning began last spring, disabled students were given priority registration on classes that were fully remote. Extra time was also given to students who required assistants to scribe their words for assignments.

The discussion turned to specific ways we can stop the ignorance of disability at Tech.

Dr. Mitchell argued that the best way to become more inclusive is to engage in “actionable insight through inclusive design or by solving problems that assist in diversity. Actionable projects are better than just ‘preaching’ inclusivity. Students learn by participating in real projects.”

“We could learn some things from other USG institutions,” said Quinn.

“UGA has a robust disability task force that goes beyond the disability office.”

He added that students who need to take less than 12 credit hours should still be able to make the Dean’s list if they have the GPA — this seems especially important during a pandemic.

Students can become allies to disabled Jackets and help with advocacy on campus by joining ABLE Alliance.

The organization is currently working on three intentions: social inclusion, professional mentoring and a website that puts all resources in one place. When able-bodied students partner with ABLE, they can become note takers, serve as professional or social mentors and more.

Housley talked about the Center for Inclusive Design and
Innovation (CIDI), a program that promotes accessibility for individuals.

“We have units within CIDI that focus on live remote captioning and electronic text production, and we have Tools for Life, which is the Assistive Technology Act program for the state. We also do web accessibility, braille production and audio description for media. We’re there to work with anybody in the state, all ages, all disabilities and all parts of Georgia to explore the options out there in terms of assistive technology.”

He went on to discuss CIDI’s current research: “We’re looking at aging with a disability — making sure that you’re still connected to the community and to information access all across the board.”

He added that to make Tech a more inclusive place, it boils down
to “the staff knowing the basics — knowing how to use services and equipment on campus.

“I used the shuttle buses before the pandemic. I have had friends with physical disabilities where the driver didn’t know how to use the lift. [I had to] show them how to use it.”

Marshall concluded the panel by reminding us that “Accessibility is a mindset. It’s how you do things. Those who worked with this event understood a lot of the background of what they needed to do. It’s not that we did anything special. This is how you plan an event.”

“You plan an event with everybody in mind. Faculty, understand that there are many types of students on campus. There are many types of employees as well,” said Marshall.