October has been Disability Heritage Month since 1988, and NAU is recognizing Disability Heritage Month in its own unique ways. People who work in special education, disability studies and disability resources said it is always crucial to have an awareness of people with disabilities and accommodate them in every way possible. Events throughout Disability Heritage Month are working toward promoting recognition of community members with disabilities and becoming involved in a conversation about including everyone in physical, social, professional and educational spaces.
NAU professor of disability studies Matthew Wangeman said the distinction between disability awareness and celebrating disability heritage lies in the actions and improvements made by and for people with disabilities.
“Disability Heritage Month is not about disability awareness, because we feel the NAU community should already be aware of disability,” Wangeman said. “Disability Heritage Month is really about celebrating the disability rights movement that continues to evolve in this country and around the world.”
NAU’s director of Disability Resources Jamie Axelrod said recognizing the accomplishments of those with disabilities should be as much of a priority as recognizing the accomplishments made by anyone else. He said the disability rights movement and others, such as the women’s and civil rights movements, have strong parallels and are struggles that should be acknowledged similarly in society.
Axelrod said that while Disability Heritage Month is about acknowledging what individuals have done to further the disability rights movement as a whole, it is also about recognizing individuals with disabilities who have impacted the local community.
“There’s a lot of focus on disability awareness during [October] and has been for many years, but our discussions here on campus have centered on the idea of getting beyond just awareness and celebrating the contributions of individuals with disabilities in our community,” Axelrod said.
There is a history of segregation, exclusion and discrimination of people with disabilities, Axelrod said. The fight individuals with disabilities and allies made to improve societal conditions for people with disabilities is monumental and a large focus of Disability Heritage Month.
Axelrod said people must also recognize the contributions community members with disabilities have made to improving Flagstaff as a whole, as these efforts have also been unappreciated.
“There’s a long history of people with disabilities being excluded from programs and services, or maybe even removed from their communities,” Axelrod said. “This is a part of our campus and community makeup, and how do we honor that and recognize that, because folks with disabilities contribute much in the same way as everyone else contributes.”
Wangeman said the reason people with disabilities have been so limited in the first place is because of the stigmas people assign to having a disability. He said the disability rights movement has to continuously overcome people imposing the concept that having a disability makes a person’s life miserable.
“We believe that disability has often been portrayed as a tragedy in this society,” Wangeman said. “However, the vast majority of people with disabilities think that their lives are not tragic. In fact, we truly believe it’s how people think about disability that limits the opportunities people with disabilities are given to reach their potential, and that is the real tragedy.”
He said Disability Heritage Month’s purpose is to counter negative attitudes that society has surrounding disabilities, and to push the true perspective.
In every atmosphere created, be it a physical space, the academic area or the social environment in a club, people must remember to consider every person who might be included, Axelrod said.
“We must remember there is a way to look at what we’re doing that includes individuals with disabilities, and if we’re not thinking about everyone who’s coming into that space, then we’re going to unintentionally create barriers,” Axelrod said.
Disability awareness is crucial to ensure people are being as inclusive as possible, simply because not being introduced to disabilities makes people not know how to include people with disabilities into their environments, Axelrod said.
April Brady is a senior lecturer in NAU’s College of Education. Her specific expertise is with high incidence special education in elementary education. This means she works with people who have disabilities that aren’t recognizable just by looking at them.
“Oftentimes, disability isn’t something you can see. It’s things you can’t see, and it affects a child’s ability to perform in the classroom,” Brady said. “The more awareness that all of us have, particularly teachers who try to work with children who have these hidden disabilities, the better.”
While these hidden disabilities often go under the radar, Axelrod said people can adopt a more inclusive perspective by assuming people within the environment may have disabilities. Doing so can help break barriers that assuming might have constructed.
When people’s disabilities are visible, Brady said it is important to realize that a person is a person aside from their disability. She said the best thing to keep in mind is not to assume what a person might want or need.
“When people see disabilities that are visible, sometimes they want to overcompensate, and they want to say, ‘How can I help you?’ when the person doesn’t need help,” Brady said. “Sometimes you want to do too much for that person, and the person wants to be an individual who can take care of themselves. Finding a balance of respect for the person who has a visible disability is so important.”
Junior Bianca Salinas is majoring in elementary education and special education. Salinas said the best way to know what someone with a disability needs or wants is by talking to them. She said without talking with them, it is impossible to know how a person wants to be interacted with.
The children she’s worked with have been great at understanding what their peers with disabilities need and want by openly talking to them.
Salinas said adults should readopt this kind of communication, as it is respectful and curious. She said adults’ fear of saying or doing something offensive prevents them from actually getting to know the person with the disability.
“Kids ask questions like, ‘Why do you walk like that?’ or something — just kid stuff,” Salinas said. “They’re going to be curious, and they’re going to ask no matter what. But the other student is also willing to tell them, and it’s not a judgmental interaction at all. It’s not coming from a judgmental place. It’s just like, ‘I want to know more.’”
She said being a kind person and recognizing that people with disabilities have interests and hobbies just like everyone else is important.
“I fell in love with these people and their stories,” Salinas said. “They’re so cool and really genuine, and you get to learn about them as people. At first, you tend to see the disability more than you see them, but then you get to know them, and it’s like, ‘Well, this person is so much cooler than me in so many ways.’”
Brady said these interactions are just like interactions with people who aren’t disabled — it comes down to being a decent human being who is kind, respectful and considerate of those you meet.
Axelrod said working to ensure people with disabilities are being included in all environments allows them to succeed in those spaces, especially at NAU.
“University life is meant to be challenging,” Axelrod said. “The challenge is supposed to be in the academic program, discovery and engagement, and not about first having to remove barriers just to get to that environment. So, we don’t want to make it more challenging. It’s already challenging enough, and we want folks with disabilities to have access to that same type of challenging program and engagement.”
Wangeman said he is proud to be associated with NAU’s Disability Heritage Month and urges students and community members to explore what is being offered. Through shaping an attitude of acceptance and respect, people who work in special education, disability studies and disability resources said people can be more inclusive in creating physical, academic, social and professional environments.