Disability, Diversity, Discrimination, and the Fight to Design An Inclusive Environment

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Nefertiti with coworkers and supervisor at an exhibit memorializing the horror of the Holocaust. Photo by author.

Nefertiti Karismaida, a student at the University of North Carolina at Asheville shares her experience of fighting for a more inclusive environment. Through her internship, she helped raise create a better environment for people from all walks of life, including marginalized groups. How can we learn to be more accepting of people with disabilities? Nefertiti shares her experience below.

It was during the second half of 2016 when the Center for Diversity Education (CDE) at the University of North Carolina in Asheville notified me that I had passed the interview stage and was offered an internship with them. Looking back now, almost two years later, I am thankful that I took up a challenging on-campus job training and built meaningful networks with my supervisors and a handful of co-workers my own age. The CDE is an organization within my college that strives to create programs and activities aimed at raising the awareness of students and the local communities toward the issues of racial inequalities and injustice suffered by marginalized groups such as people of color, immigrants to the United States, and those with limited opportunities.

Within the first few months of my internship, I was introduced to a non-profit organization called Everybody’s Environment (EE), which is one of the many small local NGOs the CDE works with. The CDE trusted me to be their liaison, meaning that I had to go to EE monthly meetings and draft resolutions on how they could recruit volunteers to develop workshops focused on improving Asheville citizens’ knowledge of resources that help children from unfortunate families to learn about leadership and empowerment amidst their economic hardship. During the meetings, I began to realize that those children’s struggles would increase tenfold if they happen to have either a physical or mental disability, such as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, being autistic, using a wheelchair, or battling chronical illnesses.

It was not until the CDE collaborated with my campus’ Office of Accessibility to hold a special event highlighting the issues surrounding “invisible disabilities”, however, that I started to become more involved and contribute toward making my campus a friendlier place for my peers with disabilities. The event, titled “Disability Day of Mourning”, included the reading of poems by activists around Asheville who themselves had disabilities that are not apparent to the naked eye, such as fibromyalgia (joint, tissues, and muscle pain), schizophrenia, or dyslexia. I remember being asked to read a poem called “Letter to A Baby Thrown from A Bridge”, which describes how an infant born with Down’s syndrome was killed by her parents, who were embarrassed of her condition and thought that she would be better off dead. Although the poem is fictional, the horrible murder it depicts is an actual phenomenon—around the country, millions of babies, toddlers, and even teenagers with disabilities die by the hand of their caregivers, who believe that they have no future or are just a burden to their society. The event I joined in served as a reminder that such untimely deaths are preventable only if everyone has the open-mindedness to see that children with disabilities are humans too—yes, they might require more support and understanding to thrive and grow into happy adults, but they do have dreams and wishes that need to be respected just like anybody else’s.

Nefertiti giving a presentation about immigrants with disabilities. Photo by author.
Nefertiti giving a presentation about immigrants with disabilities. Photo by author.

Near the end of my internship, my supervisor asked me to give a presentation for my fellow students on how to connect with immigrants, especially when the immigrants have both a disability and a communication barrier. In my presentation, I emphasized the importance of acknowledging that a complex intersection between institutional racism and a discriminative industry exists—for example, it is difficult for someone with limited English proficiency and hearing loss to be accepted as a secretary, a manager, or even a cashier although she/he may possess all the relevant technical skills. Yes, discrimination based on race and health conditions is illegal, but it still occurs because employers are often unwilling to provide the different types of accommodations required by their prospective employees. For instance, a blind employee might be denied the right to use computers equipped with Braille keyboards, a deaf employee might be forbidden from using sign language, or an employee with cerebral palsy who can’t speak due to his condition might not be able to receive an aide to assist him with verbal communication. Granted, it could be costly for employers to accommodate employees who have disabilities, but accommodations are not privileges to be obtained, they are the basic services that must be given so that the employees can satisfactorily perform to the best of their potential.

The summer after completing my internship, I joined a study abroad program in China with my friends and saw firsthand how people without limbs and people with skin diseases like leprosy were treated unfairly. For example, when I took a bus to a traditional market, I saw a poor beggar with a walking stick being side-eyed by tourists who threw garbage at him instead of giving him some coins or at least edible snacks to keep his hunger at bay. This experience reminded me that it is not easy to survive as a person with disability when everyone else thinks that having a disability is disgusting, resulting in social isolation. I believe part of the reason people with disability are shunned is because they are usually portrayed ridiculously or inaccurately in movies as reliant and dependent individuals in a culture that glorifies self-sufficiency.

Nefertiti during a study session with her peers. Photo by author.
Nefertiti during a study session with her peers. Photo by author.

Humans are predisposed to fear what they fail to comprehend. Therefore, the first step toward accepting the communities of people with disabilities is to change our perception of them: they are not disgusting, they are not monsters, they deserve to be valued, and they want to be loved. Acceptance comes from the knowledge that “disability” is not a bad word and that interacting with someone who has a disability does not have to be scary. Some of us might be afraid of having conversations with a person who does not behave the way we behave, but that is just another reason to initiate a dialogue so that we can stop spreading misinformation. It is time to let them guide us into their world. It is time to listen with our hearts and stop judging.