University of Redlands student Elizabeth Beck ’23 experiences chronic pain that can make completing daily tasks difficult, causing her to occasionally miss class. Jay Arroyo ’24 faces obstacles while navigating the main campus in a wheelchair. Katie Thew ’24 must balance a handful of weekly medical appointments and phone calls with insurance companies, in addition to managing a full course load. All three students are members of DEFIANT, a student-run organization committed to advocating for students with disabilities and differences.
Disability is multifaceted. Citing a definition widely accepted by members of the disabled community, Thew said, “Disability is a result of the interaction between functional limitations or impairments and physical, communication, and social barriers.”
Formed in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, DEFIANT is geared toward disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill students and offers members a space to connect and speak about their experiences, both on and off campus. The group hosts weekly meetings that include discussions about myriad topics, including ableism, representation in media, and mental health.
Building a home base
DEFIANT is a vital resource and serves as a social hub for disabled students. Before it existed, Beck spent her first year at the U of R feeling isolated and powerless. Now, Beck, Arroyo, Thew, and other students rely on each other for encouragement and are committed to advocating for current and future members of the disabled community at the University.
“When I got here, I had a lot of trouble navigating what it meant to be a disabled student on campus,” said Beck, who knew to seek accommodations from Academic Success and Disability Services (ASDS) because she had an Individualized Education Program as a high school student. “I became passionate about advocating for [accessibility] because I wanted to make it easier for students in the future—it was hard learning all of that by myself.”
Over the last year, Arroyo, Beck, and Thew have spoken with University leadership and staff members to raise the profile of disability advocacy and activism on campus. Disability justice, a framework that examines disability and ableism as it relates to other forms of oppression and identity, provides a foundation for their efforts.
“To me, disability justice means equity—just being able to exist in the world without feeling like you have to take gigantic steps to do so,” Beck said. “Sometimes I don’t want to have to advocate for myself. Sometimes I just want to exist as a college student on campus.”
Additionally, Thew is passionate about developing a more robust collection of resources for disabled students. The key, all three students said, is getting buy-in from those outside the disabled community to change the perception of disabled students.
Broadening the scope
Last fall, students and staff members identified issues on campus during an accessibility tour, which resulted in the remediation of various bumps and other obstacles on campus. Recently, Arroyo, Beck, and Thew channeled their efforts and planned a Disability Forum, which explored issues of accessibility and other concerns with a wider audience.
“The three of us don’t know all the accessibility issues on campus, we just know our personal experiences. So, we thought it would be a good idea to open this up to all disabled students so that we could learn about the issues they’re facing,” Arroyo said.
Thew organized a panel of student speakers who represented an array of disabilities, and moderators read anonymous submissions about accessibility concerns on campus. Participants suggested the creation of a Disability Cultural Center—including a paid disabled expert with knowledge of disability justice and advocacy—a more streamlined process for reporting inaccessibilities, expanding the forum into a multi-day anti-ableism conference in the fall, and campaigning for funding in support of these institutional changes.
Ella Budington ’25, who uses a wheelchair, noted that the larger, two-seat desks found in some buildings on campus are helpful for students with disabilities. She also spoke about how, when she moved into Grossmont Hall, she requested that Facilities Management lower the shelves in the closet and create a wheelchair-height peephole in the door.
“We live in a world where most people don’t realize that stuff until they’re in that position,” she said. “We’re learning all this new stuff—we’re learning about how to make the world a less binary place in terms of gender, we’re learning how to be a more accessible world, and it takes time, resources, energy, and hard work.”
Listening to students
The forum’s necessity was confirmed by the presence of nearly 90 participants who logged on to listen and speak. President Krista Newkirk, University Dean of Student Affairs Donna Eddleman, Senior Associate Vice President of Facilities Management and Real Estate Roger Cellini, and Assistant Dean of Academic Success and Disability Services Amy Wilms attended and contributed to the event while noting students’ concerns.
Referencing the age of the University and its structures, Cellini explained that renovations are considered and prioritized based on need. Most recently, the Facilities Management team added accessible features to Grossmont Hall. Cellini also said the department plans to commission a campus-wide Americans with Disabilities Act study that will identify, prioritize, and plan necessary accessibility modifications in the future.
“Accessibility isn’t just about structures, it’s also the sensitivity in how we approach functions. It’s programming, it’s having closed captioning, it’s making sure our website is accessible. It’s all those things and we want to make sure that we’re doing those well,” said Newkirk, who noted she is reaching out to legislators to request funds for various projects.
In addition to facilitating feedback from disabled students, the forum solidified a commitment for a long-term plan to address accessibility needs on campus—a perspective that Arroyo, Beck, and Thew seem to have already adopted.
“It’s important to bring these issues forward so that we can see if we can genuinely do something about them,” Beck said. “Not all of them are going to be fixed. It can’t all be done in a day. But I want to come back to Redlands in 50 years and know that I was a part of the change.”