By Asia Fields
Disability rights advocate Keith Jones urged Western’s future educators to change the way disabilities are seen at a talk co-sponsored by Woodring College of Education on Friday, May 18.
“Are you giving people the tools to look past the diagnosis to see the humanity?” he asked.
More than 200 people attended the event, with some students standing along the sides of the room or sitting in the hallway to listen.
Jones is president of Soul Touchin’ Experiences, which consults with businesses and organizations about expanding services to people with disabilities. He is also a hip-hop artist and co-founder with Krip-Hop Nation, a group of artists with disabilities working around social justice.
Jones said people with disabilities still face a lack of support when trying to pursue education, despite nearly one in five Americans have a disability, according to a 2010 Census report.
“Its 2018 and we are still asking for students with disabilities to be included in classrooms,” Jones said.
Students with disabilities are not making it to college at the same rate as their peers, Jones said.
At Western, there are 1,418 students who have been working with the disAbility Resources for Students office this year, according to Paul Cocke, director of communications and marketing. This is around nine percent of Western’s total fall 2017 enrollment.
The actual number of students with disabilities at Western may be higher, as this number only accounts for students who self-identify as having a disability and use the office. If Western’s population of students with disabilities matched national statistics, there would be nearly 3,200 students with disabilities at Western, based on fall enrollment numbers.
“As a person with a disability, we’re not supposed to have the aspirations of coming to Western Washington University,” Jones said.
Jones was the only student with a disability and only student of color in some of his K-12 classes, he said. During Jones’ senior year of high school, his teacher tried to convince him to stay an extra year. She was shocked to learn he’d gotten into college, which Jones said shows an expectation he couldn’t graduate in four years because of his disability.
“As a person with a disability, I should not have to justify my existence,” he said. “I should be able to get up, meet the academic standards, graduate and be in student debt just like everyone else.”
Jones pointed to technology as allowing students to reach their full potential. As technology has become more affordable and advanced, there is no excuse for curriculum to be inaccessible to students with disabilities, he said.
Special education majors Abigail Rosencrans and Felicity Shomer said Jones inspired them to think about how they will support their future students.
“My main dream is to really get people with disabilities into colleges,” Shomer said.
She said Western has room to make campus more accessible to people with disabilities. Rosencrans agreed and said more should be done starting in elementary school to get students to college.
“That’s when you’re really laying down that base for higher grades and building that resilience,” she said.
Jones also urged future educators to consider the experiences of students with multiple marginalized identities.
Jones discussed his experience being a black man with a disability and a series of encounters he had with the police in one night. His friend’s car was broken into and he was sitting in the passenger seat waiting, while his friend went to look around the area.
Multiple police officers approached him because they thought he was trying to steal the car. He said they pointed their guns at him and didn’t believe he couldn’t put his hands up because of cerebral palsy.
“There were two things that were happening at the same time. Was it my disability or was it my ethnicity?” he asked.
People with disabilities make up a majority of those killed in use-of-force cases by law enforcement officers, and other marginalized identities, including race, can increase the risk of violence, according to a 2016 media study.
Jones said there are also stereotypes based in racism affecting what people assume about his disability.
“If you are a person of color with a disability and you have a wheelchair, I can’t tell you how many times people asked me, ‘When did you get shot?’” he said. “I started looking for bullet holes.”
Jones shared statistics on the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, particularly people of color with disabilities. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double the rate for people without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
He also said students with disabilities have a higher risk of being sexually assaulted.
“You’re on a college campus, so you understand what sexual assault can entail and how prevalent it is on campus,” he said. “When you add disability to it, it’s exponentially higher.”
A 2018 study by the National Council on Disability, a federal agency, found 31.6 percent of undergraduate women with a disability have reported sexual assault, compared to 18.4 of undergraduate women without a disability. The study also found colleges’ prevention and education programs were not inclusive of students with disabilities, and that many colleges don’t fully comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“There are real world consequences to having a disability in a society that does not see the value in your humanity,” Jones said.
Jones is currently working with the VERA Institute on issues around sexual violence against people with disabilities.
Keith Hyatt, a professor of special education, said Jones’ work is especially important today.
“Recently we have seen individuals with disabilities mocked by politicians and the media,” Hyatt said.
Jones said he’s concerned U.S. House of Representatives Republicans voted in February to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, and said the Department of Education has stepped back from protecting students with disabilities.
He also discussed how media still don’t show people with disabilities as normal people. He called out journalists for sensationalizing normal things people with disabilities do, like writing stories about a student with a disability going to prom.
“How many of you get a sticker for getting out of bed in the morning?” he asked. “Nobody. So why do I get praise for doing Herculean things?”
Jones asked the audience to stop seeing people as their disability.
“We are human. Period, full stop,” he said.
Jones’ talk was sponsored by Woodring College of Education, the Ershig Assistive Technology Resource Center and the special education and education leadership department.
Jones was featured in the documentary “Including Samuel,” which is about the inclusion of youth with disabilities focused on a child with cerebral palsy. The film is available through Western Libraries.