On Feb. 1, the Hiatt Career Center hosted a webinar, “Black & Disabled: Creating Equity in Overlooked Spaces,” aimed at exploring how higher education institutions and employers can be more inclusive. HBCU 20x20’s CEO, Nicole Tinson, moderated the panel. Dr. Dennis Johnson, the senior vice president of partnerships for HBCU 20x20, gave a brief introduction. Derrick Cainion and Ambrose Tabb provided American Sign Language translations throughout.   

Teaching how disabilities impact people’s lives is key to identifying areas for improvement. Natalie Dickens, one of the speakers, stated that this education is needed because “if you don’t struggle with this specific thing, you don’t see a need for [a] solution.” Dickens, a recent graduate from Jackson State University, won HBCU 20x20’s Pitch Competition with her presentation on using TikTok to amplify information about autism.

Dickens believes that interacting with people in person can be limiting, and social media offers a global space for people to share their stories about their disabilities. Online platforms allow people to connect and expand their own perspectives in a way that might not have happened before. Social media’s algorithm can spread messages of disability awareness to people who aren’t actively searching for it. 

According to their website, The Application and HBCU 20x20 “are the nation’s leading social enterprise for academic and career resources with an audience of 25,000 and growing, representing colleges and universities, ten countries and over 600 corporate partners.” One of their services is allowing students to send in college applications for free. 

Dickens discussed ways to make college campuses more accessible. She said that even though Jackson State University’s American Disability Act measures are “amazing,” it is disheartening that most students don’t know about the full extent of its services. “I think that, to me at least, it seemed like a lack of importance to the school as a whole to really aggressively put out there that this service was provided for students,” Dickens explained.

Renovating infrastructure on college campuses is also a major need. When she was at Jackson State University, she observed that elevators in some buildings were consistently broken. Moreover, some students took classes off campus, but the shuttle hours were irregular and there was no space on the buses for wheelchairs. Dickens shared that the shuttles left the stop too fast and didn't give enough time for people who needed extra help to get on the bus. Furthermore, at career fairs she recommended there be sections for jobs that have sufficient disability accommodations. 

Similarly, Brandeis students have faced problems with inaccessible infrastructure and housing accommodations. While there have been some improvements, such as securing funding for a ramp for the Brandeis Counseling Center and renovating the Brown Social Science Center, most dorm buildings don’t have elevators or automatic doors. 

During last year’s housing changes, the Disabled Students Network circulated a petition criticizing the housing selection process for leaving students with disability accommodations without proper housing. There was a silent protest on Admitted Students Day to advocate for 29 students with disability accommodations who reportedly received inadequate housing. Students protested again during University President Ron Liebowitz’s annual presidential address. 

Many college students with disabilities struggle to find satisfactory accommodations. Wendy Harbour, the associate executive director for programs and development at the Association on Higher Education and Disability, stated in an National Broadcasting Company news article that “the problem isn’t that schools aren’t following the letter of the law but that they often don’t go beyond compliance. Disabled students may have dorm rooms that are accessible, but they can’t visit any other student on campus, or students in need of interpreters or notetakers might receive one of poor quality, or a building might have just one accessible bathroom or only one elevator.” 

An unwelcoming environment can cause feelings of exclusion and increase the chance that students with disabilities dropout of school. According to an NBC News article, “only a third of students with disabilities who enroll in a four-year college or university graduate within eight years. At a two-year school, less than 42% graduate.” 

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act “is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The law is split into five titles that each outline how different institutions should comply with the ADA, including employment, state and local government, public accommodations, telecommunications and miscellaneous provisions. With the provisions from the act under higher education, such institutions are responsible for “providing accommodations, creating accessible learning environments and complying with laws such as the ADA.” However, to some college students with disabilities, these standard allowances are not enough to make their college experiences equitable.

In addition, transitioning from college to a job can be difficult. The National Organization on Disability completed a four year project called Campus to Careers involving 11 employers and 15 colleges in Massachusetts examining how to facilitate that transition. The report recommended that career services and disability services on college campuses work together more. Employers connect with disability services on campuses when recruiting, companies generate a disability-positive online image and employers train hiring managers and human resource workers to reduce bias.  

Not only did the panelists advocate for more resources that would help people with disabilities find an accessible college campus and a job after graduation, but they also encouraged more disability awareness in the workplace. Both Candice Nash, the diversity and inclusion manager at Toyota North America, and Felicia Nurmsen, the managing director of employer services at the National Organization on Disability, exemplified how a partnership between a major company and a disability advocacy nonprofit can yield improvements to the workplace. 

Nash talked about boosting accessibility from Toyota’s perspective. Internally, she works with executives to develop strategies and implement them. Some aspects they look at include workforce diversity and the level of executives’ support and engagement with team members. Moreover, they examine supplier diversity to ensure that they financially invest in inclusive policies, as well as provide a mentor program to teach other businesses Toyota’s practices. 

Toyota also commits to community partnerships, and they started working with NOD around 2017-18. NOD’s tracker tells them areas they are doing well in and opportunities for improvement. Nash emphasized thinking “about the entire life cycle,” meaning not only looking at improving the physical workplace but also how they recruit employees, interview them and complete the onboarding process. 

Nurmsen agreed that Toyota made significant progress on the accessibility front. NOD toured the campus and pointed out where infrastructure could be better, and a year later, Nurmsen stated that Toyota implemented all of NOD’s suggestions. 

The panelists talked about affecting change in the realms of academia and career achievement. However, change in the political realm is vital as well. Nurmsen encouraged people to register to vote to enact more legislation advancing equity for people with disabilities and elect candidates advocating for more accessible infrastructure.