Students push for cultural center for people with disabilities
Yale student activists and leaders with disabilities are continuing a years-long effort to create a new cultural center for students with disabilities.
Zoe Berg, photo editor
Disability Advocates work alongside University administrators to create a cultural center for students living with disabilities. If created, a cultural house for people with disabilities would become Yale’s fifth cultural center and the first in 29 years.
The push for a new cultural center began in fall 2019 with Disability Empowerment for Yale, which is an undergraduate advocacy and affinity organization for students with disabilities. Then-president of DEFY Paige Lawrence ’21 and a slew of board members, including Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’24, worked with Yale College Council to draft a proposal for adoption by the YCC Senate . DEFY worked with the YCC, the former Disability Resource Office (now Student Accessibility Services), and the Yale College Dean’s Office to get their proposal for a cultural center for people with disabilities off the ground.
“We knew it would be a long and difficult journey,” said Lara Midkiff. “One that neither of us would likely see or enjoy the end of.”
In spring 2020, DEFY met with Yale College Dean Marvin Chun and continued to meet with university administrators through fall 2020 and spring 2021, securing gains including increased service staff for students, the creation of a YCC Accessibility Policy Team, the establishment of a Disability Peer Liaison Program, and the institutionalization of a Disability Peer Mentorship Program.
For Lara Midkiff, these victories were the first indicators that the formation of a cultural center for people with disabilities was possible.
“These victories were a game-changer not only because they will continue to help and support generations of students with disabilities,” said Lara Midkiff, “but because they were the first indication that the University considered the community of people with disabilities as a community not only worth recognizing but supporting and celebrating.
Yet, a cultural center for people with disabilities has not yet been created on campus, and many members of the university community are still advocating for its creation.
Chisom Ofomata ’25, the current president of DEFY, said that establishing a cultural center is integral to achieving a sense of belonging for people with disabilities.
“With a cultural center that provides a community and advocacy base, students with disabilities will have a bigger voice on campus and a place they can call home,” Ofomata said.
In addition to creating a safe space for people with disabilities, Ofomata said, the new cultural center will contribute to the recognition of disability as a socio-cultural identity with its distinctive history, shared experience and culture.
“The University’s failure to recognize the cultural aspect of disability needs to be corrected,” Ofomata said. “In addition to creating a more inclusive campus, recognizing the culture of disability with the creation of the PDCC will help students with disabilities feel empowered and facilitate necessary discussions with the student body.”
According to Josephine Steuer Ingall, 24-year-old Disability Peer Mentor program coordinator, “it’s only a matter of time” before students with disabilities get a culture house.
Ingall said there was a rapidly growing population of students registered with Student Accessibility Services, so a cultural center was long overdue. A cultural center for people with disabilities could resemble the LGBTQ Student Co-op, Ingall proposed, because like the queer community and other marginalized groups, people with disabilities need recognition, support and visibility to counter centuries of discrimination and dehumanization, she said.
“I think defining disability as an identity rather than a medical condition is very similar in many ways to the transformation of how we have come to understand homosexuality; it’s not an aberration, it’s a natural part of human experience and variation,” Ingall said.
With the support of the YCC, DEFY continues to push for a cultural center alongside students from the Middle East and North Africa who also hope to have their own cultural house.
Lara Midkiff, director of community policy at the YCC, said that in addition to establishing the two new cultural centers, the YCC is working to add a MENA category to admissions applications and university data collection. Lara Midkiff added that the Asian American Cultural Center recently opened a MENA room for community building through advocacy.
“As these critical efforts continue, I am hopeful. … I see no evidence that the struggle for belonging will slow down, and therefore future successes are no longer a matter of possibility but a matter of time” , said Lara Midkiff.
Brown University, University of California, Berkeley, and Syracuse University all have cultural centers for students with disabilities.