A group of students with disabilities and allies have formed a new registered student organization focused on providing a safe space and educating the UA community on disability issues.
Margaret Bozarth, a sophomore and president of the DisabiliTEA Party RSO, is an engineering peer mentor. She joined with other students to found the group after one of her mentees voiced concern about not finding an RSO on campus focused on the disabled community, she said.
“It is a place where members of the disabled community can state ‘Our life is not perfect, we’re not going to sugar coat it,’ and just let them have that therapeutic aspect of getting to actually say what’s on their minds and not feel like a burden to other people for it,” Bozarth said.
The group has been officially incorporated as an RSO since January, but began meeting in September.
Meetings take place every two weeks at the Multicultural Center in the Arkansas Union and provide a space for students with disabilities to air grievances, meet like-minded people and drink tea with no faculty or staff members present, Bozarth said.
Clara Smith, a freshman who has autism, joined the group because she sometimes struggles to socialize and has found autism-specific support groups to be very child-oriented or expensive, she said.
“It has given me a space where I can communicate with other students in a safe, concise and clear manner about different things that happen to us and may be happening to us,” Smith said.
Kadesha Treco, a graduate student and vice president of the RSO, has used a wheelchair for 10 years. She joined the group because she wanted to be part of an organization with other individuals who share similar experiences and work together on improving the university, she said.
The group has given Treco and her peers a greater sense of community and belonging at the UofA, she said.
“It has really given us a sense of agency in some ways to just feel like we actually have a voice as a community to be able to speak about the things we feel are not accommodating at the UofA for us,” Treco said.
Educating the public about various aspects of living with disabilities is a key part of the DisabiliTEA Party mission. Many in the general public have misconceptions or ill-informed expectations about disabilities and the people who have them, Smith said.
“Being able to foster an environment that is accommodating to the different places students may be at and promoting the normalization that we are people who study, learn, do activities and have friends is important,” Smith said. “We are average university students. We just have a few differences.”
DisabiliTEA Party members want the campus community to understand what true accommodation means, and what it can look like when such accommodation is an afterthought, Bozarth said. For example, on March 11, UA officials did not cancel school for inclement weather until 8:30 that morning. Many students were already traveling on public transit, and it can be unsafe for members of the disabled community to be out in the ice and snow.
“This is what actual inclusion, this is what actual accommodation is,” Bozarth said. “It is more than just an inconvenience. It’s a necessity.”
Smith has felt empowered to become a disability rights activist and a voice for those in the DisabiliTEA Party who feel disadvantaged or unfairly confronted with things they cannot do because of their disabilities, she said.
“There’s an overwhelming amount of support and comfort, which I’ve been a beneficiary of,” Smith said. “There are not very many places to turn to get this sort of support where people understand what your experiences might be like.”
Bozarth appreciates the RSO because it gives her a community of people who understand what it is like to not just be fighting life’s everyday struggles, but also be fighting one’s own body, she said. Having a community to advocate for in the DisabiliTEA Party has empowered her.
“It is really difficult for me to face conflict, but it’s worth it,” Bozarth said. “It has value because I know there are people out there who do not have that in their lives, people that I am meeting right now that are not experiencing justice, people who are having to deal with things they absolutely should not have to deal with in a remotely decent world.”