A year ago, AAPD proudly announced that with funding from the Ford Foundation, we would be creating the COVID-19 & Higher Education Advocacy Program. Despite the end of the formally declared public health emergency, we know the pandemic isn’t over. It has been a mass disabling event that has rippled through our communities in a profound way, including higher education institutions. We have seen and continue to grow in our understanding of the impacts of long COVID. There is a need for change that respects the pain in our community and our right for safety. Higher education is becoming harder to access, especially for disabled people of color and people with lower incomes. We’ve witnessed the impacts as mask mandates have been repealed, large gatherings have continued, and classes have returned with requirements to be in-person. The paths that historically made it easier for some disabled people to access higher education are under attack. This includes DEI bans, the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action and a nation-wide rollback of mandatory masking at colleges and universities. Actions like this ensure that higher education remains inaccessible for many members of our community.
In light of these evolving challenges, our vision is that higher education institutions adopt more inclusive and accessible policies and support systems that center disabled students, faculty, and staff. We will bring together disabled people in higher education to build communities that sustain them in future advocacy. This program is a continuation of the grassroots organizing that transformed the nation, with disabled students at the forefront during the independent living, disability rights, and disability justice movements. While the COVID pandemic has brought about new challenges or further highlighted existing issues, the legacy of student and community activism that we hope to honor through our organizing is decades old. It is an example of what is possible when the Disabled community comes together to fight for change.
We have established three priorities to help guide us as we build the program, knowing that these priorities may shift as we organize:
Organize the Community
We bring together students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, fostering community to collectively advocate for accessible higher education and employment.
Serve the People
We exist to serve and support members of our community working to bring access to education by providing the resources, connections and public support needed to bring about change.
Educate the Public
We amplify stories from students, faculty, and staff with disabilities to highlight the institutional inequities of higher education and the access issues made worse by the COVID pandemic.
In addition to setting these priorities, the most significant step we have taken so far to launch this program is hiring Ashley Cowan D’Ambrosio as the COVID-19 & Higher Education Program Manager. We are excited to introduce Ashley (she/her), a Queer, Disabled activist, educator and entrepreneur. Ashley is a non-traditional high school-dropout and first-generation college student who identifies as Autistic, Mad/Mentally Ill and Chronically Ill. Her identities and life experiences have ignited her passion for this work and her vision for this program.
Ashley is a community organizer and a bed activist. She is someone who completed her degree program at an “in-person” institution from her bed, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Her story and journey in higher education is just one of thousands, and reflects a robust community of people with disabilities who envision a better and more accessible future in higher education.
Through the COVID-19 and Higher Education Program, we hope to identify areas where reform is needed, and take actionable steps to bring the future we envision into focus. We are committed to creating change for disabled students and staff who systems and institutions often leave behind, especially disabled people of color, low-income students with disabilities, those in youth reengagement programs, and students with disabilities caught in the school-to-prison nexus (commonly referred as a pipeline).
We want to collect information from community members interested in staying updated on our COVID-19 & Higher Education Advocacy program. We will organize focus groups in various communities and topic areas in the coming months. These groups will help to inform what we tackle next, how we design our Discord or a platform for folks to connect, and other means for direct connection, organizing, strategy, and support. By filling out our form here, we invite folks to add their email to our mailing list and/or share additional information about themselves and indicate how they’d like to get involved in the program. We will be announcing details about our subgrants in the coming weeks and encourage you to stay tuned!