How student ambassadors are making accessibility a focus on campus

Executive members of Disability Ambassadors attend a healthcare panel at the University of Miami.

As diversity, equity and inclusion become increasingly hot-button issues both on and off-campus, one organization is out to remind students that disabled students are also part of the conversation.

“A lot of the times when we’re talking about DEI, we’re forgetting about disability within that inclusion,” said Anais Moyal, a senior majoring in biochemistry and co-vice president of Disability Ambassadors.

Disability Ambassadors, a student organization founded at the University of Miami in 2022, has spent the past two years working to provide a safe space and increased accommodations for disabled students on campus.

“Our main goal and the reason that we created this organization is to bring the disabled population together,” Moyal said. “That was something that we never had on campus before. Everyone was their own island when it came to students with disabilities. We lacked that sense of community and communication between one another.”

A network of support is key for students with disabilities, according to Moyal.

“When you’re a person that has a disability, you really do lean on your support system,” Moyal said. “When you’re in college, you’re not only coming in as a disabled student, you’re coming in as a student that’s maybe leaving home, and that’s being exposed to all of these new things, and you’re not finding a community that can truly relate to you.”

According to sophomore Luna Plaza, outreach chair for Disability Ambassadors, UM still presents challenges that make it difficult for disabled students to navigate campus.

“Even with accommodations, things aren’t perfect around campus,” Plaza said. “Not every professor is very accommodating for disabled students, for example, so we just have that space for students to be able to also just vent about it. It can be very hard living with a disability here on campus, and just in general.”

According to senior biology major Izzie Childress, who sometimes uses a wheelchair, steep ramps, broken door-openers, and the narrow architecture of older buildings can all act as obstacles as she makes her way to class.

“You’re expected to be in class and all these things, but you’re already fighting chronic illness, or whatever your issue is, which means you don’t have a lot of energy,” Childress said. “People who don’t typically have a lot of energy – we have to spend all our energy trying to get ourselves to class, and then we can’t even function in class.”

According to Childress, UM does allow students to rent out wheelchairs, but rentals must be renewed in person every day. This doesn’t make sense for those who are already struggling with mobility, Childress said, and that she wishes more assistance was available to those with mobility issues.

“For example, the athletes get touted around in golf carts and they are so physically fit that they are competing,” Childress said. “And then me, I’m trying to push myself in a manual wheelchair. That doesn’t make any sense to me. There have been many, many times where I’ve had to take incompletes because I’ve had a flare up in my chronic illness and I simply cannot get to class.”

Still, Childress acknowledges that certain accommodations provided by the university have proved useful. The Office of Disability Services, she said, has always been helpful in renewing her accommodations, as well as addressing instances of ableism she has experienced on campus.

“I felt truly listened to, and they were understanding,” Childress said. “People who are coming here already have so many problems. The last problem we need is another obstacle or somebody to be unkind to us.”

Despite making strides toward greater accommodation, some students feel the University still falls short of true accessibility.

“I think the issue with UM is that accessibility is not at the forefront of any event,” Plaza said. “Things like ASL interpretation, live captioning. Or considering whether the space is wheelchair-accessible. A lot of those things aren’t considered right away, and I think UM needs to start prioritizing disabled people, in every way.”

In addition to providing an inclusive space for its members, Disability Ambassadors also holds events that bring awareness to disability representation and accessibility issues at UM, in an effort to further equity on campus.

Disability Ambassadors, according to Plaza, will continue to bridge existing gaps between those accommodations that exist, and those that are still needed.

“We continue to advocate for a more equitable space for students here with disabilities in hopes that disabled students can truly feel welcome on campus,” Plaza said.