The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has expanded support and representation for those with disabilities through the newly-formed Commission for Disabilities. The new commission brings together a group of experts representing many diverse groups dedicated to representing and extending the disability work being done on campus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 26 percent of adults in the US have some type of disability, and the percentage of people living with disabilities is highest in the South.
“The mission is to provide support for individuals with disabilities—that includes students, staff, faculty, and anybody that comes to our campus,” said Janelle Coleman, executive director for diversity and engagement, who has played a key role in the formation of the commission. “We’re supporting and meeting the needs of these different groups while educating individuals about disabilities in general.”
In addition to advocating for support beyond traditional ADA accommodations, the commission aims to create opportunities for individuals to share their experiences with disability.
“We want to create a space and opportunity for people to have a voice, a place to share their own experiences and intentionally make suggestions about policy changes,” Coleman said.
UT has made significant advances in promoting disability-inclusive diversity, and the commission will provide a centralized way for those efforts to continue.
“There’s a lot of great work already being done by Student Disability Services, Equity and Diversity, Office of Information Technology, and many others,” Coleman said. “This group will help, in general, raise awareness around certain challenges, increase conversations, and increase empathy around issues people with disabilities are facing.”
Students from the Student Government Association and Graduate Student Senate played an instrumental role in the development of the commission. Tyvi Small, vice chancellor for diversity and engagement, credits student involvement and support as instrumental in the creation of the commission.
“Student leadership and student voice can really make a positive impact and difference on what happens here on campus,” Small stated. “The development of this commission shows exactly how impactful our students can be to the change and development of the university.”
Students will continue to play an integral role in the commission as both leaders and ambassadors.
“We have opportunities for students to participate as members of the commission with a potential for students to lead a subcommittee,” Coleman said. “Communicating with other students and connecting individuals with resources are other opportunities.”
The commission has a lot of autonomy in supporting and advocating for individuals with disabilities in addition to a strong connection with and support from Chancellor Donde Plowman.
Coleman stated, “The chancellor is very connected and involved with the group. She comes to the meetings, meets the new commissioners, and wants to know the priorities and offer feedback.”
“We are a campus where we want everyone to know they matter and belong. I am thrilled how the creation of the Commission for Disability will help us support our mission,” Plowman recently tweeted.
The commission’s membership includes seasoned experts and devoted students who have long been working to address disability issues and are excited and inspired by the development of the new commission.
Small stated, “The first line of work for this commission is to examine our current accessibility plan and make sure it is still relevant and inclusive.”
The action-oriented commission hopes to establish a different type of culture—one that establishes different ways of listening, hearing, talking, and communicating in the hopes of normalizing all types of accommodations in everyday actions.
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