Reformed university advocacy center puts focus on disability

The Minnesota Daily

MINNEAPOLIS — The fall semester has brought the establishment of the new Center for Race, Indigeneity, Disability, Gender and Sexuality Studies (RIDGS) at the University of Minnesota.

When the RIGS initiative was adopted in 2015 following student and faculty advocacy, conversations surrounding its intersection with disability emerged as time went on.

This past year, these conversations contributed to the RIGS initiative becoming a University center and in turn, the RIGS faculty decided to formally incorporate disability into the new center’s title, following advocacy from the Critical Disability Studies Collective.

The new RIDGS Center will be headed by Director Keith Mayes, The Minnesota Daily reported.

“The reformation of the center around disability … I think becomes an opportunity for students to understand that there are opportunities to communicate and share interests, research and other ideas about disability in that framework,” said David Johnson, chair of the University’s Disabilities Issues Committee.

The Critical Disability Studies Collective (CDSC) was ultimately responsible for the incorporation of disability into the formal title and scope of the new center.

“The CDSC is really an organization that’s working to enhance and foster an intellectual and academic community, in the Twin Cities and at the University of Minnesota, around complex understandings about disability,” Angela Carter, the founding chair of the CDSC, said. “We think of disability as a social, historical, economic and political category rather than a medical problem that an individual needs to fix or address.”

During her graduate studies at the University, Carter said the lack of disability community groups for students was the reason she founded the CDSC.

“My inspiration (for founding the CDSC) was really my own needs and recognizing my own needs as a disabled scholar, educator, organizer on campus, and feeling very alone both in my identity as a disabled person and disabled graduate student, and also in my work in critical disabilities studies,” Carter said. “I just didn’t have that community that I needed.”

In 2015, a few of Carter’s friends and colleagues joined in the creation of the group. The following year, Jessica Horvath Williams, a postdoctoral associate in English, became a co-chair of the group. Carter and Horvath Williams’ worked together to make the CDSC an official affiliate of RIGS in 2017.

“We came under the umbrella of RIGS,” Horvath Williams said. “We needed a home, so we petitioned RIGS to join them.”

For the past four years, Carter and Horvath Williams worked alongside the other CDSC members to formally include disability in the title of the center.

“Last year, Angela and I, as co-chairs, with the permission of the CDSC, wrote a very long letter requesting our formal incorporation into RIGS,” Horvath Williams said. “And so RIGS is now RIDGS.”

Student groups and University committees across campus have voiced their support for the transition from RIGS to the Center for RIDGS this fall.

“I want to acknowledge that I am very happy to see disability as part of the conversation about diversity and intersectionality on campus,” Johnson said.

The Organization for Graduate and Professional Students with Disabilities (OGPSD) is also supportive of the formation of the new Center for RIDGS, but it has raised concerns over the potential failure to consult students with disabilities in the decision to transition from RIGS to RIDGS.

“One issue I have frequently advocated about is that, many times on college campuses, diversity, equity and inclusivity efforts include many marginalized populations, to their credit, but unfortunately all too often routinely exclude students with disabilities,” said OGPSD President Ryan Machtmes.

Machtmes added that although OGPSD was not consulted about this decision, it was a positive change and a step in the right direction for the University.

“I recognize that the University is actively making strides towards improving campus climate and accessibility for students with disabilities,” Machtmes said. “But of course, it does have a length to go before we can claim to be a truly accessible and welcoming campus for all individuals with disabilities.”

Additionally, OGPSD members hope to see the Center for RIDGS take on new initiatives, now that disability is formally included in its focus. Machtmes said he would personally like to see the establishment of a University disability studies program.

“Race and gender and sexuality and indigeneity, all of those things, are connected to disability in a very real-world way,” Horvath Williams said. “The argument of the Critical Disability Studies is that we can’t talk about any of these things without talking and thinking through disability as well.”

Many students and faculty hope the CDSC’s activism to get disability included in the RIDGS Center will foster conversations about the intersectionality of disability with other identities.

“The issue is to develop an understanding of these issues around disability across campus, trying to destigmatize disability and view it as a natural condition of life and living,” Johnson said.


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