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Syracuse University’s Disability Cultural Center Recognizes Student Identity and Facilitates Belonging

July 2023
Syracuse University Masthead
Note: This article highlights the experiences of one United Educators (UE) member and does not represent UE risk management or legal advice.

Syracuse University was among the first higher ed institutions nationwide to support establishing a Disability Cultural Center (DCC) for students with a range of disabilities, including developmental, mental health, addictions, and learning differences. About a dozen years later, the center continues to bridge the gap between the federal- and state-mandated accommodations disabled students receive and a deeper commitment to their needs as valued members of the school community.

“What the university is required to do to support disabled students is very different from nurturing a genuine sense of identity, belonging, and agency,” DCC Director Carrie Ingersoll-Wood said. “The DCC recognizes a student’s lived experience on campus is important, and by facilitating a variety of programming, outreach, and a space for connection — for students with and without disability — we’re able to serve as that hub of visibility, advocacy, and activism for them.”

Providing readily available resources for students with disabilities that go beyond legally required accommodations is important for many reasons, including the sheer number of these students, their desire to have their voices heard on campus, and the problems that can arise if an institution fails to adequately meet their needs.

The cumulative effect of outreach and programming through Syracuse’s DCC is not simply visibility and engagement on campus; it also serves to educate faculty about how a student’s disability may impact academic performance, thereby avoiding unnecessary questions or conflict.

“We can help faculty to understand that disabled students will reach their academic goals,” Ingersoll-Wood said. “The path may be non-traditional, but the outcome will be the same.”

Disability as Diversity

One of 12 DCCs currently operating on campuses across the United States, Syracuse’s is the first intentionally housed within student affairs and not within a disability services center. That decision, Ingersoll-Wood said, was an acknowledgement by the university that disability — like gender, race, religion, or culture — should be recognized and supported as any other student identity.

“The DCC is a resource for everyone — you do not have to be disabled; you can be an ally, or have disabled friends who you support,” said Ingersoll-Wood, who also serves as the Disability Student Union’s advisor. “All campus identities are intersectional, and disability connects with them all.”

The DCC is part of Syracuse’s Intercultural Collective and resides on the same floor of the student center as the LGBTQ Resource Center and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, promoting the idea of inclusivity and community. Though they frequently collaborate, the DCC and the University’s Center for Disability Resources (CDR), which provides student accommodations, are separate entities.

Syracuse’s total enrollment for Fall 2022 was nearly 23,000 — including full- and part-time students in undergraduate, graduate, and law programs. At the end of the Spring 2023 term, Syracuse’s CDR reported nearly 3,200 total graduate and undergraduate students, including those studying abroad and non-matriculated, who receive accommodations. Due to privacy issues and the fact that not all students who visit the DCC identify as disabled, Ingersoll-Wood has no way of knowing exactly how many of those students the DCC is reaching.

By her estimate, through cooperative partnerships with campus and community groups, thousands attend the DCC’s virtual or in-person programs and events during the school year.

Empowering Students, Reassuring Parents

Also unique to Syracuse’s DCC: It was the first nationwide to appoint a dedicated, full-time Director, a gesture underscoring how seriously the university takes the center’s presence on campus. A full-time director also sends a message of reassurance and possibility to students and parents.

Ingersoll-Wood recalls the large number of prospective Syracuse families who toured the DCC last summer.

“Disabled students are looking for schools with DCCs because they want to see representation — a community base — and they want to know they will have access to courses that they couldn’t have imagined themselves taking,” Ingersoll-Wood said. “For parents, they want to know the DCC is here to support their child if they need it.”

Generating Campus Awareness, Engagement, and Acceptance

Among the DCC’s many initiatives and events is its Access Mentoring Program, which pairs students with disabilities with an older undergraduate or graduate student for mentorship, encouragement, and support. OrangeAbility, a showcase of adaptive sports held every April as part of the university’s Disability Pride Week, drew hundreds of disabled and non-disabled students, faculty, and staff this year.

When possible, all DCC events, such as OrangeAbility, are streamed virtually, maximizing their accessibility and impact.

Syracuse also distributes throughout the university this Inclusive Events Planning Guide, recently revised by the DCC’s prior Director and former Program Coordinator.

Future Goals

In the years ahead, Ingersoll-Wood plans to increase the DCC’s mental health support, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Connecting more with injured athletes and veterans on campus is also a priority.

One day, she would like to see an international DCC installed at one of Syracuse’s locations abroad, making it clear to disabled students that they, too, can pursue their studies off-campus and will have the support to do so.

Hallmarks of an Impactful DCC

Based on her experiences, Ingersoll-Wood recommends institutions keep these considerations top of mind when looking to launch their own DCC:

  • Ensure you have a steady stream of funding and administrative support. Syracuse’s DCC is funded through students’ annual co-curricular fees and has the support and approval of the Chancellor’s Office — a real benefit. “It’s important to have administrators who are your allies, in lockstep with you to get the goals of your DCC implemented,” she said. “You also want someone to check you at all times to make sure your efforts are realistic.”
  • Protect yourself from compassion fatigue. Engaging in consistent advocacy and activism can be draining. “Make sure to attend to your own mental health,” she advised.
  • Maintain your sense of humor. Surround yourself with people who are your cheerleaders, who have a shared purpose and recharge you.
  • Be creative. “It’s helpful to understand the frameworks of DCCs at other colleges and universities, but only you know the needs of your campus,” Ingersoll-Wood said. “Talk to your students, find out what they need, build programs around their desires, and be willing to grow and evolve with your students.”


Additional Resources

UE: Accommodating Student Disabilities Course Collection

The Chronicle of Higher Education: In Fight Against Ableism, Disabled Students Build Centers of Their Own


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