The Daily Illini

Women with disabilities discuss hardships through panel

Mariel Elopre

Mariel Elopre

By Megan Bradley, Staff writer

Conversations about Women’s History Month typically center around a very normative experience of womanhood, while forgetting about the voices of certain marginalized groups. One event on campus is working to change that.

The Women’s Cross Disability Panel, a collaboration between the Women’s Resources Center and University Housing, strives to include women with disabilities in conversations about womanhood.

The panel will feature five women who each experience having a disability differently.

The panel was created by Kathleen Downes, a disability-rights advocate, and will occur March 13 from 2:30 — 3:30 p.m. in SDRP Room 2009. The panelists include Joey Ramp, Lauren Bryant, Stephanie Santo, Liza Sylvestre and Hope Holland.

Disabilities represented in the panel include learning disabilities and hearing impairments.

Each woman will speak about her experience with disability and how it shaped her experience with womanhood.

Hope Holland, a graduate student in LAS, has learning and mental health disabilities. She is passionate about creating a space for underrepresented people in academics.

“There is a privilege in being able to choose whether to disclose a disability, and making the choice to disclose is often part of how I try to create space for underrepresented people in academic settings,” Holland said.

She strongly believes in accessible, affordable education for everyone.

Another panelist conducted her work to promote education and cross barriers for people with disabilities, specifically those with hearing impairments.

Liza Sylvestre, graduate student in FAA, is the co-founder of Creating Language Through Arts, an educational arts residency.

Along with two others, Sylvestre was able to work on this project, drawing some inspiration from her own experiences being hard of hearing.

“We collaborated on lesson plans that were offered for free at an elementary school in St. Paul that were focused on how to use art as a means of communication when there are language barriers present,” Sylvestre said.

Sylvestre is a visual artist with a painting and drawing background. She participated in a media fellowship that exposed her to other forms of media and allowed her to practice video-making.

From there, Sylvestre has experimented with video and drawings to study her own experiences and how they inform the way she sees the world.

She focuses on normative and non-normative experiences people have. Sylvestre said the non-normative includes people with disabilities, along with people of color and queer people.

“I’m thinking a lot about how the world is designed for a normative experience and how art can be the thing that is the place where non-normative experience can happen,” Sylvestre said.

Sylvestre’s work on her thesis led her to attempt to create a place where people with disabilities can exist successfully in an academic setting because they are frequently not included in that dialogue.

One of the other panelists has also taken an education-awareness approach to her own advocacy work.

Joey Ramp, senior in LAS, intends to be a neuroscience researcher. When she sees a problem, she wants to fix it, which is how she became involved in advocacy work for people with service dogs.

Accompanied by her own service dog, Sampson, Ramp said she encounters multiple obstacles in a variety of settings.

Even in school, at times Ramp is confronted with difficulties because of having a service dog.

Ramp said when she came to the University with her service dog, Theo, she was told she would have to change her major. This is because Theo would never be allowed in a chemistry lab, even though he had already been in labs previously and would wear goggles to stay safe.

“In the history of the University, there‘s no documentation of a service dog being in a laboratory at the U of I prior to Theo and I coming here,” Ramp said. “We worked with the administrators in chemistry and they were open, but it took them almost a year to develop a template where he would wear goggles when he went in the lab.”

Holland, Sylvestre and Ramp each voiced the daily challenges that arise from living with a disability.

Ramp said before she became disabled she lived a very active, independent life and it was very limiting, at first, for her to live with a disability, but getting her service dog helped her gain back some independence.

“I think that people with disabilities experience their disabilities every second of the day. It’s definitely a barrier; it’s exhausting,” Sylvestre said.

Sylvestre has to worry about things such as being able to hear in a building, something people without disabilities do not have to think about.

The Women’s Cross Disability Panel gives each of these women a chance to voice their experiences with disabilities and womanhood to celebrate Women’s History Month and to provide an opportunity for other people to learn about living with a disability.

“I think panels are a good opportunity for a lot of people to ask questions that they probably wouldn’t otherwise ask. It’s kind of like an open forum to ask some of the hard questions,” Ramp said.

Each of the panelists identifies as a woman, and they will each be participating in the conversation as a way to depict womanhood differently from how it is traditionally seen.

Holland said conversations around womanhood typically only include able-bodied white women and this comes at the expense of women of color, indigenous women, disabled, trans and gender non-conforming women.

“The category of women is not made up of only white, straight, able-bodied women, and depictions of womanhood should reflect this reality,” Holland said.

By extending the conversation to women with disabilities, the panel creates a forum for these women about a topic they would traditionally be excluded from.

Sylvestre said this can be a learning opportunity for those participating in the panel, as well as people who attend, to listen and ask questions.

“I think you will not only learn about how your peers and fellow classmates maybe experience the same places you experience in a really different way, but it will also help people that have normative experiences think about the things they take for granted,” Sylvestre said.

Despite their shared womanhood and each having a disability, every woman participating in the panel has a unique story and experience that has shaped her thus far.

The panel provides an opportunity for them to share these similarities and differences.

Conversations such as the Women’s Cross Disability Panel that take place within marginalized groups provide an opportunity for panelists to raise awareness to answer tough questions and to meet others who have similar experiences. These panels can be beneficial to audiences and panelists alike.

“Panels like this are important to have because they humanize the idea of disability and make the incredible heterogeneity in disabled people’s experiences more tangible,” Holland said.

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