When sophomore Alex Herrera first arrived on Notre Dame’s campus, far from his home of Mexico City, he was apprehensive; having to bear the stress of studying internationally along with the normal nerves felt by an incoming freshman was a great deal to handle. However, Alex endured an additional worry that the majority of students do not have to face: how would his disability affect his integration into college?
Alex is legally blind, which made his decision to study internationally even more difficult. During his first few weeks on campus, Alex said he felt quite nervous. Not only was he adapting to life as a first-year college student, but also gradually learning how his disability would impact his day-to-day experience at Notre Dame. This stressful situation prompted him to reach out to someone in the Sara Bea Accessibility Services, part of Notre Dame’s Center for Student Support and Care, hoping to be put in contact with someone who might also be visually impaired. It was through this interaction that Alex was first introduced to the club Access-ABLE, Notre Dame’s student-led club for individuals with disabilities. The organization connected him with many other disabled students who were going through similar experiences and stresses, giving him a sense of belonging. After having such a positive experience with the club, Alex, a year later, is now proudly serving as Access-ABLE’s Vice President.
The club’s aim is “to offer a community for the disabled students and their allies, to increase awareness, and advocate for ourselves,” Herrera explained. adding, “At the core, it’s a place where people come and foster community; people share their experiences here at Notre Dame, be that positive or negative; we reach out to different people at Notre Dame so that our voices are heard.”
Access-ABLE is still in its early years as a club, but its effect on those involved has been significant. Sara Bea has long offered various accommodations for students, but Notre Dame was critically lacking a place for those with disabilities to engage with each other and share experiences. Even more important, there was little to no advocacy for disabled students. This prompted Class of 2021 graduate Monica Mesecar to step in and found Access-ABLE in the fall of 2018. Since its founding, plenty of uncertain students like Alex have found a community through the club’s efforts, and this is just the beginning of its impact.
Last year, due to pandemic restrictions, Access-ABLE had to be run virtually through Zoom meetings. Despite this additional barrier, Herrera said he still made an effort to go to every meeting, be proactive, and offer insight into his experiences, but getting to know people was a challenge.
“It’s really hard to get to know people and deepen relationships online,” said Herrera, “I didn’t really meet many of the members last year, I [just] saw their name tags on Zoom… it’s not the same experience as being in person.”
That is why this year has been quite the important time for the club. The return of in-person, biweekly meetings has revived relationships between club members and officers. Herrera says that now, being able to offer food, play music, and plan different activities at in-person meetings has allowed the club to feel “much more personal,” which is the club’s mission, after all.
Many may be unaware that this is the 35th year that the United States has recognized and celebrated March as National Disability Awareness Month. This specific time is dedicated to raising awareness about the difficulties faced by disabled individuals in every facet of life. However, Alex and the rest of the Access-ABLE family hope that the efforts in March to increase awareness will be extended to every month of the year, until holistic understanding and recognition of the disabled community is the norm.
“I feel like the disability community as a minority sometimes is left aside. Right now, the focus is towards other minorities which is great, I think that increasing awareness for all minorities is important…but that also includes us,” Herrera said. “In addition to advocating for women’s rights, for ethnic and racial diversity, etc., I think that disability awareness should also be at the forefront.”
Access-ABLE is taking various steps to achieve increased awareness at Notre Dame. They are working closely with student government to improve aspects like dorm accessibility, which is a prominent issue, and provide educational resources for staff to foster healthy relationships between disabled students and faculty; this includes discussing topics such as appropriate language and establishing successful communication. Additionally, Herrera emphasizes the club’s efforts to make disabled students more comfortable advocating for themselves.
“We are on a path to learn how to advocate for ourselves, reach out, and just make this [a] topic on everyone’s mind,” he said.
Although Access-ABLE hopes to give disabled students the confidence to make their voices heard, the responsibility also lies on Notre Dame’s able population to take up their roles as allies. Here at Notre Dame, “The disability community, or any other minority for that matter, might feel alienated,” said Herrera. To make our University a more accommodating and inclusive environment, Herrera believes “It all starts with the students, with our community.”
Herrera thinks that to eliminate barriers in our community, students should learn not to look at minority groups as “different” from themselves. He notes that currently, disability is seen as a “taboo” topic that people are uncomfortable discussing, when instead it should be normal and understood. Through various social and educational events, along with proper training for faculty and staff, Herrera believes we can work towards removing the preconceptions that exist surrounding the disability community. This is exactly what Access-ABLE aims to do: increase the number of events, special speakers on campus, articles written, etc., that will help raise awareness about Notre Dame’s disabled community and the challenges they face physically, socially, and educationally.
This March, our country as a whole is called to be active allies to the disability community and work to improve the conditions they face. At Notre Dame, Access-ABLE calls on the community to take up this role whole-heartedly — not just this month, but each and every day — to make our campus a more inclusive environment.