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EDWARDSVILLE - “There’s power in the student voice and my presence here,” said Winter Racine, a second-year mass communications student in the College of Arts of Sciences (CAS), and a Senator for Students with Disabilities. “Advocacy can bring about transformation.” Racine was one of a number of speakers who introduced the fifth annual Ed Roberts Champions of Accessibility Celebration in the Morris University Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Monday, Nov. 6.
Student speakers shared stories of lived experiences while navigating the SIUE campus. The awards presented by SIUE’s Accessible Campus Community and Equitable Student Support (ACCESS) honored those who made it their mission to make SIUE accessible for all.
The two Defender of Equity Awards were given to faculty member Timothy Lewis, PhD, associate professor of political science and staff member Jessica Harris, PhD, vice chancellor of Anti-racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ADEI).
Lewis recalls being moved by what he witnessed at the first annual award ceremony. “There was a young man who talked about the doors being heavy. That stuck with me. I didn’t want to be the faculty that was the heavy door or the obstacle that prevented students from learning.”
“Being named the staff winner of the Defender of Equity Award was a beautiful surprise,” said Harris. “It was also a reminder to continue to do all that I can to contribute to making SIUE an even more accessible campus for our faculty, staff, and students.”
ACCESS recognized Harris for her significant financial contribution along with the Edwardsville Community Foundation to assist in the purchase of the UbiDuo. This device, located in the ACCESS office, eases communication among people with disabilities, such as a deaf person speaking to a blind person.
Kaitlyn Hall, a third-year CAS student and awards ceremony speaker, had already given the UbiDuo a test run. "It was amazing how we could communicate directly through this device. She could read exactly what I was saying to her, and then I was able to hear her responses as she typed them."
Hall opened the Ed Roberts Champions of Accessibility Celebration with the life story of the award’s namesake, Ed Roberts. Roberts attended the University of California, Berkeley and depended on the use of an iron lung while in student housing. When he was able to attend classes by wheelchair he galvanized fellow students, and other disabled schoolmates who called themselves the Rolling Quad. Their advocacy produced a more accessible campus, founded the Center for Independent Living in 1972 and helped popularize curb cuts on the streets of Berkeley, CA.
Hall shared a quote from Roberts: “If people with disabilities have a future, then everyone in our society will have a future.”
“Curb cuts were originally for wheelchair accommodations. But I’m willing to bet any one of you using a stroller, a bike, a dolly, etc. has benefitted from the curb cuts,” said Emily Milano, a third-year student in the School of Business and president of New Horizons.
Milano currently suffers “from 15 to 20 diagnosed medical conditions.”
“In 2016, a study was done revealing that 19% of undergraduates are disabled,” said Milano. “This isn’t counting individuals who can’t afford a diagnosis or suffer in silence.”
Student speaker Leo Tomich, a second-year CAS student, offered a suggestion for how the University community could lead in campus awareness. “When we communicate with professors and the administration, we can get a lot of things done. Let’s work together,” said Tomich. “If we work together, we can get things done.”
Arielle Johnson, a second-year CAS student and student Senator at Large spoke of hidden disabilities. Johnson has a neurological disorder and added, “by being both Black and Muslim, I feel more ostracized. I was scared of my face being shown when I had episodes.” Johnson thanked ACCESS for the accommodations and “judgment free zones to express my thoughts.”
Johnson then referenced the current war in Gaza and those whom she said everyone should be made aware. “What about the people who are blind, deaf, mute, without family and unable to evacuate to the next safe zone? These issues are not even thought about.”
The third award of the night, the Messenger of Inclusion Award, honored a student. The winner, Racine, accepted her award and took the podium a second time.
“At 15 years old, I was diagnosed with stage III Hodgkin lymphoma. I chose SIUE because I see its potential. We need to do better," said Racine. “I am your voice. I’m working so hard to make this campus what it should be and what it could be.”
Madison Proctor, a first-year CAS student and presenter, travels through SIUE campus in a motorized wheelchair. “Living on your own for the first time is hard enough,” she said. “Being independent was terrifying with how much planning it requires.”
Proctor added, “I chose to come here because my Mom did. I love the vibe. We can be better. We can be extraordinary if only we try.”
“Ask yourself if there is something more that could be done,” said Dominic Dorsey, director of ACCESS. He shared with the audience, “The stories that we heard tonight are hard to hear. Try ordering your lunch without the benefit of your sight. Try watching a movie with the sound off and see how much you can understand or comprehend from that movie.”
Dorsey stated that this annual award provides a platform that furthers Ed Roberts’ mission to shift the culture. “If we can address the issues of people with disabilities...if we can help them experience liberation, then we all might feel a little bit closer to being free.”
For more information about ACCESS and ways to donate to the campus organization, visit siueconnect.org/support-access.
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