In Conversation: Disability Pride Month and the Power of Accessibility

209

City Colleges of Chicago is celebrating Disability Pride Month this July to commemorate the passing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July of 1990, which prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities on the basis of their disability.

To celebrate, we asked Nathan Blair, the district director for the Office of Student Accessibility Services at City Colleges, and Susan Actaboski, a City Colleges alumna who now works as a notetaker at Wright College, to share their thoughts about disability and accessibility.

Nathan Blair, smiling
Nathan Blair

Can each of you share a little about yourself and your role within disability and accessibility services at City Colleges?

Nate Blair: As the district lead for all seven college ACCESS Centers, I work to make sure we effectively serve students and create accessible educational experiences. I also manage our Interpreter Services department that serves our Deaf and hard of hearing students who use American Sign Language.

Susan Actaboski, smiling
Susan Actaboski

Susan Actaboski: I became a notetaker at City Colleges after I graduated with an associate degree in special education from Truman College. I was familiar with accommodations and the ACCESS Centers because I am a person with a traumatic brain injury, and I used support services while in college. I am so happy to be in this role because it feels great to provide the kind of support that helped me. I really enjoy helping Wright College students to succeed.


Nate, this question is for you. Can you tell us about the ACCESS Centers at City Colleges? What is City Colleges doing to make college accessible and inclusive to all students?

Nate Blair: The mission of the ACCESS Centers is to provide students with accommodations that help to eliminate barriers to communication, With students cooperation, we work to foster an environment of equity and support to ensure quality services. The first letter of each of those words (in italics) spells out the acronym ACCESS.

Now more than ever, our colleges are working to re-imagine accessibility and disability services. Our ACCESS Center staff are involved in work at each of the seven City Colleges to make sure that disability and accessibility are included and represented.

What is ableism and how do institutions like City Colleges address it?

Susan Actaboski: Ableism is discrimination against people who have any type of disability.

Nate Blair: I agree with you, Susan. It’s the belief that a disability makes someone less than or less capable, which leads to intentional or unintentional discrimination. It doesn’t always present itself obviously, as a lot of ableism is veiled in microaggressions or coded language, such as referring to someone as having “special needs.” Colleges can combat ableism by creating a culture that supports accessibility and celebrates disability as diversity—even something like this interview for Disability Pride Month can help make a difference.

Nate, how can students get accommodations at City Colleges?

Nate Blair: Students can start the process by sharing their need for accommodations in the student portal or connecting directly with their college’s ACCESS Center.

We also work with students who do not have a documented disability to find supports available at each college, and we can help connect them to the Wellness Centers for a possible diagnosis and access to accommodations.

Disability services and accommodations are not one-size-fits-all, and we want the supports students get to be effective in creating access. If students have any questions or need help with the process, they can visit us at www.ccc.edu/access for a step-by-step guide to getting services as well as a handy checklist.

Susan, you mentioned that you received accommodations while at City Colleges. Why do you think accommodations are crucial to college success?

Susan Actaboski: Accommodations are important for full inclusion of all students because without them, students with disabilities are at a disadvantage. I know this first-hand because the first two times I tried to go to college, I did not pursue accommodations. I didn’t want anyone to know I had a disability, and I did not do well. The third time, I asked for accommodations and worked at passing each class with the support of the ACCESS Center.

Disability Pride Month celebrates the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July of 1990. How did its passing change access and inclusion for disabled people/people with disabilities in work and school?

Susan Actaboski: It affected the way society looks at people with disabilities and gave people with disabilities more of a chance at being included in society than had been in the past. I continue to see more and more accessible places.

Nate Blair: Thinking about education, it was a game changer and expanded rights for students with disabilities. But some higher education institutions established a disability services office to maintain legal compliance and stopped there. The ADA was never about minimum compliance—the spirit of the law is accessibility and equity. I know our ACCESS Centers at City Colleges are working to maintain that spirit every day.

Susan, what does disability pride mean to you?

Susan Actaboski: I became disabled in 1994, when people with disabilities were often sent to schools separate from the general education population. I was lucky to go to a school that was experimenting with an inclusive classroom model. I have a brother with Cerebral Palsy as well, and I want people like him and myself to know that no matter what we can or cannot do, we can feel fully included in society. Disability pride means that I no longer need to hide who l am or what I do. I can speak up loudly and proudly about my disability.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Susan Actaboski enjoys her position as a notetaker at Wright College. In her role, she assists students who need written notes taken during class as an accommodation. She enjoys being active and advocating for others, and likes to help others understand how different organizations or companies can help them. Susan earned her associate degree in special education from City Colleges of Chicago in 2020. Her home college was Truman College, and she also took classes at Wright College.

Nathan Blair is the district director for the Office of Student Accessibility Services for the City Colleges of Chicago. In his role, he works closely with the college ACCESS Center teams and Interpreter Services to provide timely and effective accommodation and accessibility services to students with disabilities. Nate is a certified sign language interpreter by trade, holding both national and state certifications, as well as being a qualified educational interpreter. Nate also has two undergraduate degrees in English and communication science and disorders, with a graduate degree in ASL/English interpreting. He began his work at City Colleges as a part-time sign language interpreter in 2015 and returned in 2019 to manage Interpreter Services.