The Disabled Students’ Network: Creating a community for all
Zoe Pringle ’22 and Luca Swinford ’22 speak about disability justice and the Disabled Students’ Network, which they created in response to the lack of community spaces for disabled students at Brandeis.
The Disabled Students’ Network, run by Luca Swinford ’22 and Zoe Pringle ’22, got its start in April 2021, a year after Swinford and Pringle met in the course “Disability Policy” taught by Prof. Monika Mitra (Heller) in spring 2020. It was during this class that they discovered that there wasn’t a space for the disabled community at Brandeis, and this inspired them to create one themselves. Unfortunately, these plans were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic; however, it was during this time that Swinford and Pringle realized there needed to be a community more than ever. According to Swinford, “It was because of the conditions of COVID, how isolating it was, that we sort of realized, like, there's no better time than to start this club right now. And so, in one way [the pandemic] delayed it, but it also kind of reinvigorated the idea for us to start a club like this.” Thus, the Disabled Students’ Network was created in April 2021 and officially chartered in December of 2021.
This club has two main goals: the first is to build a community for those with disabilities here on campus. “Our goal is to be a robust support system for disabled students, where we can really build that community that we might not have otherwise,” Swinford said. “We just really felt like there wasn't any way for students to connect with each other or even find each other,” Pringle added, explaining, “[DSN] is just kind of like a chill space where you don’t have to necessarily come in and be super informed about anything political or social.” The biggest part of creating a community is ensuring that it is open for everyone: those of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and disabilities.
Pringle said that when developing DSN, she and Swinford emphasized incorporating the “10 Principles of Disability Justice,” which is a framework created by members of the disability-justice performance group Sins Invalid. She explained that the creators of the framework identify with a variety of intersectional and marginalized identities, along with being part of the disability community, and spoke about why these individuals decided to develop this framework: “It was them feeling excluded from a lot of general advocacy spaces and activist spaces, but also disability rights and movement spaces [which are] very predominantly white and physically-disabled dominated,” she said, and added, “[DSN] really tried to incorporate these values with the sense of community.”
Pringle mentioned that one of the biggest misconceptions about the disabled community is the idea that it isn’t diverse. “We have people with all sorts of disabilities; some people prefer to disclose their disability and are very open and others aren't.” Both Swinford and Pringle stressed the importance of including those of all backgrounds and disabilities, because ableism affects everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or disability.
Spreading activism and disability movements on campus is the other goal of the DSN. As Swinford said, “We hope that the existence of our club will push people to examine [ableism] in their own lives because ableism impacts everyone's life, regardless of disability status.” He explained that the club has two different visions: one for people who are disabled and one for people who are not. “Even abled people would benefit from less ableism, and disability justice movements are so tied to racial justice and anti-capitalist movements, and everything is just so interconnected,” said Pringle, explaining that the DSN hopes that their impact will reach beyond those who are already thinking about and involved with disability justice or who identify as disabled. Her hope is that this will lead able-bodied people to understand their role in fighting against ableism and for disability justice: “We need both disabled and non-disabled people to be involved for a better future. It's not just one side or one facet of a community. We really need to include everybody.”
Pringle describes how other movements centered around marginalized identities almost always include those with disabilities, and yet it is common to see disability movements be overlooked or not taken as seriously. As she put it, “Hearing all these different things be mentioned and accounted for and looking for ways to support marginalized communities and never hearing disability mentioned, it's kind of mind blowing, given that the disability community is one of the largest marginalized populations in the world.”
A common thread in the disabled community at Brandeis, and in general, is the frustration at the lack of accessibility and understanding from others. Pringle spoke about how many students have voiced their frustrations over difficulties dealing with Student Accessibility Services. Getting accommodations in classes, or even acknowledgement for accommodations, is something that she says is “always a hassle” and getting accommodations off-campus is an even bigger challenge. “One general thread I've noticed is that a lot of professors just never mention disability. It's relevant in every single class,” Swinford said, adding that he has taken it upon himself to bring up disability in his classes. “I think a lot of professors don't think about it … And so we really hope that that's something that the Brandeis community takes note of and then adapts.”
The DSN’s message to the greater Brandeis community is one of a desire for acceptance and unity. “Our message is this: that disability is worth space at Brandeis. Disability is worth recognition. And it's something to be proud of. And so for disabled students, for people who are unsure, we want them to know that there's a space for you here. And there's people that really care about you and are rooting for you,” Swinford said, continuing, “For non-disabled people the hope is really, you know, maybe get involved in some advocacy. Maybe learn a little bit about what ableism might be.” He explained that DSN seeks to show that the disability community is one that should be paid attention to and talked about, not only in discussions of accessibility but also in academic spaces and general university discussions as well.
This past Friday, March 18, the DSN held a panel discussion titled, “A Critical Discussion of Disability in Public Health,” featuring panelists Mitra, associate professor of disability policy and director of the Lurie Institute at the Heller School, and Prof. Stephen Gulley (HSSP), a health and disability researcher and lecturer at Brandeis. The panel discussed the relationship between disability and public health and where things are headed as far as including those with disabilities in public health discussions.
“We are noticing the lack of disability in conversations in public health. And so this is really an extension of conversations in the disability community about being ignored in the COVID-19 pandemic response … This is reflecting an attitude towards disability that's been prevalent in public health for a long time.”
Speaking to the Justice ahead of the event, Swinford talked about how disability impacts every facet of people’s lives, even for those who are not disabled. Of the event, he said, “This is a great chance to learn, one: about a community that you might not know much about, and two: how to talk about some possible solutions and where we go from here.”
During the panel, Mitra and Gulley fielded questions about how public health initiatives can be more inclusive of disabled people and what steps the Brandeis community should take to incorporate disability justice and awareness into its public health policies, with a focus on the changes being made as COVID-19 precaution guidelines continue to be loosened on campus and elsewhere. Mitra and Gulley shared their insights, with Mitra citing her experiences working in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in her answers, and Gulley emphasizing the importance of inclusion in public health spaces, especially for those with invisible disabilities.
When answering a question on the connection and history between public health and disability, Mitra responded, “Nothing is going to happen if the decisions are made by able-bodied people who have no understanding of disability. Hiring, retention, training, inclusion of the folks that are in decision making throughout the pipeline, throughout different sectors is absolutely critical … Investments in research, policy, and practice that need to go into programs that are disability-centric are really, really important.”
Gulley also brought up the topic of inclusivity while discussing a hopeful future for healthcare and disability, saying, “Instead of going off of some white privileged benchmark, we need a notion of health. We need to understand disability. We need to understand well-being, not on the basis of some nebulous majority group.” He stressed the importance of advocating for “Much more fully individualized, culturally-aware, person-centered, and culturally responsive health and healthcare.”
Swinford described his hopes for the Brandeis community’s takeaways from this event via email, stating, “Dr. Mitra and Dr. Gulley's insights were invaluable and provided a perspective on public health that is needed and critical, especially at this moment where COVID-19 restrictions are being dropped. I hope that the Brandeis community can take the insights they shared on Friday and reflect on the ways that we can learn from the past and the relationship between disability and public health to push public health in a more equitable direction.”
For students interested in learning more about the disabled community, disability policy, or advocacy, Swinford and Pringle’s advice is to look into classes on disability policy. Two of their suggestions are “Sociology of Disability” with Gulley and “ Disability Policy” with Mitra.
If you want to get more involved with the Disabled Students’ Network, this panel is just one of many events and meetings the DSN has held. Community meetings happen weekly from 8 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays. These meetings are hybrid, so if you are interested you can either attend via Zoom or show up in person in Heller G55. Advocacy meetings occur every other week from 6:30 to 7 p.m. on Zoom. Feel free to follow their Instagram @dsnbrandeis or find them on their Facebook page, “Disabled Students’ Network Brandeis,” for more up-to-date information and to be updated on future events and meetings.