The AccessAbility Center, a new student center affiliated with the Office of Disability Services, was publicly unveiled on Thursday, April 13, to a large crowd of students.
Liz Erickson, the director of the ODS, explained that while the ODS already existed and provided resources for students with disabilities, it was not connected to members of the University community and therefore could be better support for students who were struggling with disabilities.
The new center, located on the second floor of Frist Campus Center alongside the Women*s Center and LGBT Center, is housed in former office space and is designed to be a readily accessible place in which students can facilitate greater engagement and understanding of disability and difference on campus.
The walls of the center are painted a bright soothing blue with the words “Ability Attitude: ‘I define me’” in large black letters. The colorful room features paintings, photos, couches, standing tables, Play-Doh, stress balls, and more, creating a welcoming atmosphere.
Erickson also noted that students who did not have experiences with disability had no place to learn more about the issues, leading to greater ignorance and affirming negative stereotypes about individuals with disabilities.
“One of the big assumptions that historically has been made, probably here in Princeton, but broadly, too, is that you can’t be intelligent and have a learning disability,” Erickson said. “But there’s no correlation between someone’s disability and someone’s intelligence. And if you don’t understand that, you may judge someone and ask, ‘Why are you here?’”
Erickson said conversations around building a new student center began several years ago, but designing and planning the center began just last summer. The name “AccessAbility” was selected after a long process of brainstorming, collecting suggestions, voting, hearing feedback, and deliberating over the student center’s mission.
“We chose the name AccessAbility because it embodies two core philosophies,” Erickson noted. She said the first one is accessibility.
“Our goal was really to create a space that is comfortable for everyone, minimizing the need for accommodations or alterations,” she said. “We value access for all.”
The center features couches for sitting and lying down as well as tables where students can work while standing up.
“We wanted someone with a back injury to be able to come and raise the desk and be able to stand, or sit, or do both,” Erickson said. “That feature is also just good health care for anyone.”
She added that the “accessibility” part of the name emphasizes how individuals could choose to perceive ability and disability.
“Disability is just one attribute. Everyone has different abilities. Someone can’t do math, someone can’t write to save their life,” she said. “A disability is a difference, and everyone has differences. We want to focus on your abilities. How do you define yourself? Is it your disability? Maybe it is and that could be important. But maybe it’s not.”
Erickson envisioned the center as not just fostering conversations to help people understand disability, but going beyond this and promoting the idea that individuals with disabilities can enrich the lives of other students on campus.
“We have a student who’s deaf and who has brought American Sign Language to the campus. Everyone who has learned [ASL] is going to take that with them when they leave campus,” she said.
The grand opening featured speeches and a toast to the new center. The event was intentionally designed to be highly accessible. The speeches were translated into American Sign Language and typed on a stenograph, which was connected to a TV screen. The food was positioned so that someone in a wheelchair could access all the food, according to Erickson.
“I thought everything went really well,” said Marisa De Silva ’20, an event volunteer. “It was a very big turnout in the beginning and the speeches were really well done.”
Thinking about the future, De Silva expressed interest in continuing to volunteer for the center.
“It seems like somewhere that I’d want to come back to,” she said.