Empowering students with disabilities: A look inside Augie Advocates

Victoria Campbell and Rae Barry

Augustana strives to dedicate its environment to being an inclusive and diverse space. There are currently advocate groups for people of color and those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community, but not as much has been done for disability advocacy. First-Year Bella Perkins would like to bring change and increase that representation, which led to her creating a group called Augie Advocates. 

Coming to Augustana, Perkins felt a lack of support. Despite a push for intersectionality, she noticed that throughout her experiences, not all communities were represented equally.

“As a student with disabilities on campus, I think that what was portrayed when applying here, in terms of support, is a little bit different from what I’ve encountered, in a negative way,” Perkins said. “My experience is not really different from a lot of other students that I know.”

Relating to struggles with other students around her, Perkins was inspired to create an advocacy group, allowing students who either identify as having a disability or as allies to offer each other support as well as create a space to promote change for the rest of the campus.

Some ideas Perkins has for the club include resource workshops and fundraisers for those in need. The money raised would go towards medical equipment and hygiene products. Ultimately, this group is supposed to be a space where students can come together and get support from outside resources and connect with their peers. 

Since creating the idea of Augie Advocates, Perkins has recruited students who hold the same interest in disability advocacy. First-Year Helena Smith is a member of Augie Advocates and has faced their own struggles when receiving accommodations on campus. With the help of Augie Advocates, Smith hopes to offer support to other students in similar positions.

“We’re definitely striving for a better connection between people who need accommodations, or any sort of additional help from the school, and then the school itself because there’s a bit of a lack of connection there at the moment,” Smith said. 

Dr. Catherine Webb, an Augustana CSD professor specializing in disabilities studies, has offered Augie Advocates some support in navigating this new group. While the concept of disability accessibility is new on campus, disability services can fit in with Augustana’s conversations of diversity.

“I definitely think it’s something we don’t talk about enough…in a lot of places and not just at Augustana,” Webb said. “We’ve really increased and improved the discussions around diversity and equity, but we often don’t include disability as a part of that, and I believe we should.”

Webb hopes that creating a group focused on disability services will help create more conversation and change. With Augie Advocates already receiving positive feedback from a number of students, Webb sees the group providing a supportive environment since a number of students are already invested and intrigued.

“Allowing people to be together who have similar values and having a community is really important,” Webb said. “Oftentimes, people who identify as disabled don’t have anybody else who also does.”

Students on campus have had similar reactions to Augustana’s current environment and the changes that an advocacy group might bring. 

Sophomore AJ Friel recalled how little she has heard in terms of disability services on campus. Friel suggested that Augie Advocates could help students be informed about the services that Augustana offers and the importance of support.

“I think that even just creating a conversation about it is definitely helpful in spreading awareness,” Friel said. “We can do better and things are not as accessible as they should be.”

Just like Friel, sophomore Sally Boutaleb enthusiastically supports Augie Advocates. 

“There’s no such thing as being too inclusive on campus,” Boutaleb said. “There’s a bunch of areas we can work on and I think [Augie Advocates] is a great idea.”

Augie Advocates is there to take the initiative to help those in need and to educate people. Boutaleb agrees that this group would make school a more enjoyable place for everyone. Students can feel understood and accepted in this program.

Sophomore Imane Siraj shares her own perspective on the current campus environment regarding efforts towards support for disabilities. As an advocate, she shares how room for improvement can be made.

“This is a liberal arts college. So, for me at least, that kind of implies that the college usually would tend to walk the extra mile for students with disabilities whether it’s physical or mental,” Siraj said. 

At first glance, Augustana does not seem to assist those with disabilities. Boutaleb acknowledges accommodations can be difficult to make because of budgets and many students recognize how this campus is difficult to travel around.

“Sorensen is one of the hardest buildings to get in,” said Boutaleb. “One of my classmates is disabled, and it’s very hard for them to get in there, and I feel like it’s not just about having one building adjusted. Like, it has to be over campus.” 

Siraj agrees that based on the campus layout and building structure, it is very hard for people with physical disabilities to make their way through campus. This isn’t just an issue for students, but also any family members who may be visiting and have a physical disability. Poet Katie Farris, who uses a mobility aid, recently visited Augustana as part of the River Readings series and had to contend with uneven pavement, stairs and winding, extra-long paths. 

“We have to keep in mind that it is a pretty special campus because we’re in the middle of the woods. There [are] a lot of hills which I do acknowledge may be very difficult for people who are not as able bodied,” Siraj said. 

Along with building accommodations, more can be done to create a supportive environment such as hosting events or inviting speakers. Students, like Siraj, find this to be helpful for spreading awareness.

“Anything as simple as holding something in the Brew and being able to hear this [stories] from people with disabilities. That’s a step towards improvement,” Siraj said. 

With hosting events, students would be able to become more aware of personal narratives from people with disabilities. More voices can be heard and this population from Augustana can be recognized too. 

“I would want to go to these talks and I would want to hear about these people’s experiences, because it’s something that’s out of the norm for me because I’ve never experienced it, but it still exists,” Siraj said. 

It is beneficial to hear people’s own narratives on disabilities because they are coming from someone with experience. Augie Advocates can be that space for people to spread awareness and create a healthier campus setting.

“People do go through things like this and we do have to keep it in consideration because we’re all going to the same college, and I feel like everybody deserves an opportunity to navigate their days easily,” Siraj said. 

Siraj believes that Augie Advocates would be beneficial because it promotes inclusivity and awareness. Even though not all students face the same struggles, people can become more mindful of those struggles by being educated on what they are.

With time, Augie Advocates is developing. As the school year winds down, Perkins hopes to have the group prepared for more students to be involved in the fall semester. Currently, the goal is to spread awareness of this program and its purpose. The vision is to create a space for students to find encouragement in each other and feel supported on campus. 

“If you’re a student on disability or if you’re a student on campus who has a disability, I see you, and I hope that the rest of the campus will soon be able to see you,” Perkins said.