Implementing Universal Design in the Workplace

November 12, 2017 | Ariel Carlin, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

The Administration for Community Living (ACL) is a federal agency devoted to supporting people with disabilities and the aging population in our country. The administration, like many, have had changes this past summer including new leadership which has welcomed Melissa Ortiz as Commissioner. The Administration for Community Living deserves praise for their work and commitment to the American citizens.

What I found striking when interning with ACL was not only the diversity among cohorts but the workplace itself was inclusive and cognitive of Universal Design. Universal Design (UD) is a design concept that creates access to all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design in regards to products and environments. For example, all doors opened with the touch of a button, creating an overall ease of access throughout the workplace whether you were a wheelchair user or running from one meeting to another with full hands. Individual’s cubicles were designed for that specific employee. Some aspects of an individual’s cubicle that varied included lighting, desk height, number of computer screens, chair type, and or any assisted technology to effectively participate in daily work functions. It was evident that the ACL administration looked for optimal inclusion in all breadths of the work environment.

Interning with the Policy and Evaluation team was a very unique experience. Each day I gained more knowledge on federal policies regarding things such as housing or healthcare but more importantly I gained a greater understanding of the importance of diversity within the workplace. Seeing and working alongside individuals of varying abilities, race, religion, age, gender, sexuality or otherwise benefited the quality of work we produced. The varying perspectives and character strengths are vital in this field of work. To best serve and protect the American people through these areas of policy, the diverse cohort and inclusive, universal environment are necessary for success. ACL is a federal agency that models an inclusive workspace.

Experiencing this atmosphere this past summer was a privilege.


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Ariel Carlin is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she interned with the Administration for Community Living within the Department of Health and Human Services.

My Disability Isn’t A Tragedy

November 3, 2017 | Annika Ariel, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

Picking up my laundry was only supposed to take three minutes and twenty-three seconds. I had made frantically grabbing my clothes from the dryer and taking them back up to my dorm a science, one that I had mastered in the never-ending pursuit of finishing my readings at a reasonable hour. So when I realized that the laundry room was full of people, my first thought was damn, this is going to take five minutes.

Smiling at the upperclassmen who had apparently taken over the laundry room for the night, I walked out. My only mistake was pausing and checking my phone just as I was out of their view.

“So is she, like, blind?”

“Yeah, think so. I have no idea how she does it. I think I’d kill myself if I were blind.”

“She’s apparently an orientation leader for next year. I wish I knew how she could do that. Can’t exactly ask, though.”

I had upstairs on my Braille notetaker a copy of Emerson’s essay “Experience”, and the first line kept running through my head—“where do we find ourselves?”. At that point, I had been at Amherst a semester and a half. While many accessibility barriers existed and continue to exist at Amherst, this was my first direct experience dealing with the misconceptions of other students. I watched awkwardly as the men, apparently having realized I was standing nearby, walked out of another door.

I found myself thrust out of the comfortable disability bubble I had put myself into. Up until that point, I had believed that ignoring my disability was, somewhat ironically, the best way to educate people. If people just saw that I was a ‘normal’ person who ‘happened’ to be blind, they would eventually be able to look past my blindness. However, I was being forced to realize that this approach was inadequate—if I ignored my blindness as much as possible, people ended up being even more confused and misinformed. Sometimes, this manifested itself as me being told I didn’t ‘seem’ blind or people have lingering questions they were too scared to voice. Simply put, shoving my disability to the side resulted in misconceptions remaining unaddressed.

Coincidentally, that same semester I was enrolled in Amherst’s one class on disability. For the first time in my life, I was reading about the social model of disability. I began viewing my blindness not as a flaw, not as something to be ashamed of, but just as another part of the human experience. By being open about who I was, not only was I more comfortable in my own body, but others around me became more comfortable and knowledgeable about disability. My disability isn’t a tragedy; it’s simply a different way of living.


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Annika Ariel is a 2017 Summer Intern. This summer she interned for Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Living with Anxiety

October 16, 2017 | Madlyn Jennings, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

I have lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember. For the majority of my life, my constant anxiousness was a part of average everyday life for me and not something anyone else would understand. It was not until I was in college that I realized anxiety is something other people struggle with. It was at this point that I understood I had a mental disability. I have always had a physical disability. That is obvious to anyone who meets me. This is not the case with a mental disability. Even once I accepted I had a mental disability, I did not seek help. My thought was “if everyone is doing just fine without help so can I.” It was not until this summer that my mindset changed. My experience as an AAPD intern this last summer has helped me to realize that there is no shame in having anxiety. I had the opportunity to meet other people with anxiety and learn how they managed their anxiety. They were also supportive of and accepting of my experiences. Through their support I have gained the confidence necessary to seek help in handling my anxiety. I have gained so much from my internship. I have made connections within the disability community and learned so much about the history of the movement. These are important things and I appreciate them; however, I believe the thing that will be of most benefit to me moving forward will be my new perspective on the part my anxiety plays in my life.


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Madlyn Jennings is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she interned with the National Education Association (NEA).

Thank You Will Never Be Enough

October 6, 2017 | Lauren Galloway, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

Thank you will never be enough

I remember the first week here I was on the phone with a friend from home, and after the normal hi, hello, how are yous I was bursting to communicate this amazing rush I had been feeling all week.  Oddly enough, the rush didn’t come from anything most would consider monumental.  The rush, the excitement, the power I was feeling came from simply existing; existing in a space with so many other badass, capable, disabled advocates.  I can’t do the euphoria I felt justice in words, but taking on DC as a collective felt like the best kind of rebellion and there was so much power in it.   Everyday society tells us in their pitiful glances, questioning tones, and brash discrimination that we are incapable simply because of our disabilities, but here we were, the gimp patrol as one of my fellow interns called us, navigating public transit, going to work, and exploring DC with not an able person among us.  Imagine that!  Such mundane actions may seem too inconsequential to get euphoric over, but they have unimaginable impact when you aren’t used to them.

I keep writing and rewriting and grasping for the right words, but nothing seems to be sufficient.  Growing up in a small town in Illinois, I can count on one hand the number of disabled people I had regular contact with.  I’m not used to walking around with a badass disability brigade, but let me tell you there’s nothing quite like it.  Thank you AAPD a million times over for making THAT possible.  Thank you

This summer I marched in solidarity and immersed myself in culture.  This summer I experienced understanding without once having to ask or explain.  This summer I felt pride in my people.  I found mentors and role models and advocates who will fight alongside me for years to come, and all I can say is thank you.

Thank you AAPD for being a convener, connector, and catalyst.  Thank you for bringing me to DC.


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Lauren Galloway is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern placed with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Deaf Talent in Hollywood

September 29, 2017 | April Caputi, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act existed, Hollywood has been known to produce films that did not depict Deaf people correctly, due to a lack of Deaf awareness. The stereotypes they portrayed affects the perception of Deaf people to general hearing audiences, and were, for the most part, negative and dehumanizing. Deaf awareness to the public did not really begin until the 1960’s-70’s when The National Theater for the Deaf was established, American Sign Language was recognized as a language, closed-captioning created a recognized Deaf audience, and a number of scripts containing Deaf themes were produced. 1989 was the year the Deaf community made significant progress through Gallaudet University in bringing Deaf awareness to the public during the struggle for Deaf rights.

Since then, there have been some positive depictions of Deaf culture, such as Children of a Lesser God, in which Marlee Matlin became the youngest and first Deaf woman to win an Academy Award for her role in 1986. In 2011, ABC Family’s Switched at Birth premiered, featuring several Deaf characters all played by real Deaf actors and accurately portrays their culture. In the fall of 2015, Broadway held a revival of Spring Awakening incorporating ASL and hiring several Deaf actors for the musical. Even with these accomplishments, Hollywood is still unconvinced in accepting Deaf people as a genuine cultural minority group.

Hollywood has a tendency to hire Deaf actors only for films about Deaf people and refuse them for anything otherwise. There have been numerous cases where hearing actors play Deaf characters. This is a cultural offense to Deaf people since it does not provide an accurate representation of Deaf people and it denies job opportunities to them. Hollywood’s so-called solutions have been to take crash courses in ASL, Deaf culture, Deaf mannerisms, and the “Deaf style” of acting. At a roundtable discussion, I heard Marlee Matlin share a story in which she was denied a Deaf role, yet was asked to teach the hearing actor how to be Deaf. No matter how much a hearing person learns about it, he/she will never be able to fully embrace the life of a Deaf person as well as a Deaf person him/herself.

Part of this problem is that Hollywood does not even hire Deaf people as writers, producers, and directors. To move in the right direction, Deaf people need opportunities to write stories about Deaf people (or at least, include Deaf characters) that are accurate and does justice to the community. We also need more stories of integration and inclusion where disability is not the main focus of the story. People with disabilities are people first, and they live their daily lives like everyone else.

While Deaf actors are shedding light on this issue, actors with all other types of disabilities are advocating for inclusion in Hollywood, also. Again, while there has been some progress (ex: Micah Fowler in Speechless), Hollywood continues to fail in some aspects (Eddie Redmayne won the Golden Globe award for The Theory of Everything). Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American actress and stand-up comedian who has cerebral palsy, gave a TED speech in 2013 where she stated, “Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user.” These issues are similar to race and ethnicity representation in Hollywood. Just as a Caucasian person cannot effectively play a major African-American role in a civil rights movie, a hearing actor cannot effectively play a Deaf character without having experienced the full nature of Deaf culture. After researching this topic further, I have come to a point where I need to listen from Hollywood this time. That is, listen to them behind-the-scenes, not on-screen.

Why has Hollywood been so exclusive when dealing with minority groups? Is it money? Time restraints? In a 2014 Atlantic article written by playwright, Christopher Shinn, who had a below-the-knee amputation at 38, he explains his theory on this topic. One aspect is that the financial reality of Hollywood is that casting stars for lead roles will push the film to the top of the box office. Sometimes, this means casting able-bodied actors for disabled roles. Another point is that it is reassuring for audiences to know that the able-bodied actor they see is not actually disabled in real life. “Society’s fear and loathing around disability, it seems, can be magically transcended,” he says. Shinn goes on to explain how with this comforting assurance, society is not witnessing the real pain and struggle of having a disability. “Able-bodied actors can listen to the disabled, can do research, can use imagination and empathy to create believable characters. But they can’t draw on their direct experience. That means that audiences will be able to ‘enjoy’ them without really confronting disability’s deepest implications for human life.” This led Shinn to speculate that society is more interested in disability as a metaphor for universal themes such as the triumph of the human spirit over adversity or feeling self-divided rather than something that actually happens to people.

One of my film professors, a member of the Writers Guild of America, also shared his point of view, “I think traditionally Deaf actors were not accepted because no one knew how to make money from talent that had a disability.” He recognizes that Deaf people want a vehicle to showcase their talent and that Hollywood has a benevolent side, but also brings to mind that, “Opportunities are rare also partly because most writers are not thinking, ‘I think this will be good for a Deaf person to play.’ They just don’t think that way.” He said that Hollywood is concerned with image, money, and power, so it’s no wonder Hollywood has not been exactly acute to the voices of minorities.

This makes me ponder just how much more we can do as minorities to get our voices heard and action done about it. I started listening to people from different departments working in Hollywood. During my internship at Paramount Pictures, it took over a month for me to discover that their employee screenings had captioning and audio descriptions enabled through an app. As I conversed with a projectionist there, he openly said how this should be a more discussed issue in this field. Had I not prodded to see whether or not I could watch Beauty and the Beast in 3D with captions on, these people would never have become aware that this needs more recognition.

Regarding Deaf actors, I am proud of how far we have come in making ourselves known in a positive light and impacting audiences all over. Needless to say, work still has to be done and we can do that by starting with our surrounding communities. Continuing to educate others while having open ears will come a long way. With the significant progress we have made in these last few years, things should only get better from here on out as long as we keep fighting for our rights. I will forever be grateful to be a part of the Deaf community and have a starting platform to continue being a part of this conversation.


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April Caputi was a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer she interned with the National Archives and Records Administration.

My Disabilities Define Me and That’s Okay

September 22, 2017 | Lauren Berglund, 2017 AAPD Summer Intern

Photo shows Lauren Berglund, a young blind women, and her service dog, a female black lab, sitting at the edge of the reflecting pool with the Washington Monument in the background on a sunny day.

Photo shows Lauren Berglund, a young blind women, and her service dog, a female black lab, sitting at the edge of the reflecting pool with the Washington Monument in the background on a sunny day.

It’s no secret that people often say “my disability isn’t who I am” or “don’t let your disability define who you are”, but what if it does?

What if I am who I am today because of my disability? What if the main reason I’m interning in Washington DC this summer is because I’m disabled?

My disabilities define me and that’s okay.

My disabilities have affected who I am and countless choices I have made. They have driven my passions and desires. They have made me the person I am today, and I am a better person because of them. They impact my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. I am strong, stubborn, and articulate because I’ve had to be. I am an advocate and ally because of my experiences as a disabled person.

Being disabled and the effect it has on my day to day life is almost always on the forefront of my mind. I can’t just “forget” I’m disabled. Being disabled affects every single aspect of my life. From shopping, to getting from place to place, to something as simple as getting out of bed are all affected by my disabilities. No matter how much others would like to think disabilities don’t limit people, the truth is they do.

I don’t just “happen to be” a student with a disability, I am a disabled student plain and simple. Being disabled greatly impacts my ability to be a college student. It means I have to advocate for myself daily. It means I have to plan ahead and be prepared for any situation. It means I have to work twice as hard as my peers to read the same article. It means preparing weeks in advance for the start of a semester and it means that sometimes I just can’t make it to class that day.

When you tell me not to let my disability define me you are telling me not to embrace a huge part of my existence. You are asking me to ignore the part of me that has greatly shaped who I am today. You are indirectly telling me that part of my identity isn’t important. When you treat my disabilities as something separate from me and say they don’t define me, you are denying the overwhelming significance disability has had on my life.

Identifying as a disabled person empowers me every day. When I say “I am disabled,” it isn’t for pity and I am not giving up or showing weakness. When I say I am disabled I am showing my strength, worthiness, and power. I am owning who I am.

Being disabled has meant meeting countless amazing people (who are not amazing for simply being disabled) from all over the world. I have traveled all around the United States, lobbied on Capitol Hill, changed policies, and fought for my rights as a disabled young adult and I wouldn’t change any of that.


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Lauren Berglund is a 2017 AAPD Summer Intern. This summer Lauren interned with The Arc. This piece was originally published on Lauren’s blog on July 31, 2017.

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