Stanford’s soon-to-open Disability Community Space, part of a two-year pilot program recently launched by the Office for Inclusion, Community and Integrative Learning, will help strengthen the sense of community for students with disabilities.

Concurrently, the university is launching a task force on students with disabilities to examine the educational experience of the broad community of students with disabilities and to recommend steps Stanford could take to further advance equitable access to opportunities. 

These two endeavors seek a greater degree of support and community for students with all kinds of disabilities, and directly address issues highlighted in the campus-wide IDEAL Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey. The survey revealed that both undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities feel less valued at Stanford than students without disabilities, and students with disabilities find communities where they feel marginalized at a rate that is substantially higher than students without disabilities. 

A new program coordinator

Brittany Tewari is the new program coordinator for the Disability Community Space. Tewari will manage the space, provide programming and help build community for students.  

Brittany Sahai Tewari is Stanfords first Disability Community space director. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“Students with disabilities have really wanted a space where they can connect,” said Tewari, who will work part-time while she completes a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs at the University of San Francisco.

The space will provide a central location for disability-related resources and events, as well as a place for people to gather, said Cat Sanchez, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford, has been a member of the Stanford Disability Initiative and the Wellness Information Network for Graduate Students. 

Having a dedicated staff member will help overcome the challenges of student-led programs, which can lose continuity when leaders graduate, said Sanchez, who now serves as an associate dean with Stanford’s Office of Community Standards.

The space is the result of the recommendation of an advisory panel and some of the events that already happen on campus, such as those recognizing Disability Awareness Month in October, could be held there. The space could also serve as a base for mentorship programs and a place to host alumni speakers.

A diverse community

Tewari wants the center to foster a sense of community among students with a wide range of disabilities.  

“Like any other kind of culture or identity, there’s a lot of nuance,” Tewari said. “I think those with, say, a mental illness and those with a physical disability do feel a sense of community in that they have this condition that makes them feel different. But the difference between physical disabilities and more mental or intellectual disabilities is something I want to talk about.”

There is also a distinction between students whose disabilities are visible and to those with invisible disabilities. Sanchez said the space will be helpful to both groups.

“For students who can never get away from their identity, it’s valuable to have a space,” Sanchez said. “And for students who have to self-identify, it’s hard for them to find people who have a similar experience. This is a place where you can go and say, ‘This is what my life is like – are any of you having similar experiences?’”

And although some aspects of the college experience will be very different for students with different kinds of disabilities, there is a common thread, Sanchez said: “All these accessibility issues are handled by the same departments [Office of Accessible Education and the Diversity and Access Office] on campus – even if my issue is one thing and yours is another, we’re having discussions with the same people.”

Broadening beyond students

The disability community will have a broad reach, encompassing faculty and staff as well as people who don’t have disabilities themselves but have a loved one with a disability.

“We have a really strong community of staff and faculty with disabilities on campus, and we’re really excited to open that space up to them as well,” Sanchez said. This will help students see adults who are managing careers and disabilities. “There are not a lot of good narratives about how to be a person with a disability in the academic space.”

Tewari also wants to start conversations on issues of disability justice.

“When it comes to disability identity, there’s a lot of stigma around it. A huge part of this space is creating a place where people will feel comfortable talking about these things,” Tewari said.