New Student Organization spreads awareness about living with disabilities

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New Student Organization spreads awareness about living with disabilities

Megan Swett, Assistant Editor for News

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Raven Wilson, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Illinois Springfield, founded the new student organization, AREA, last semester.

AREA, which stands for Awareness, Respect, Education, and Ability, works to better incorporate the reality of disability into the lives of able-bodied students. Wilson drew inspiration from programs like INQUEERY and Safe Zone, which are educational initiatives based on teaching students and faculty about the LGBTQ+ community.

“There was no one who could lead a professional workshop like INQUEERY for those with disabilities,” Wilson said, “so we kind of came up with the idea that a student organization could do that.”

Wilson first got the idea to establish an organization for students with disabilities in late January of 2016. By mid-February, the organization was registered with the university.

“Our first event wasn’t until April,” Wilson said, referencing the three-on-three wheelchair basketball tournament. “It was a really great turnout. Everyone participated and had a great time… we had some basketball players come and see how to play in a wheelchair… I think it was a learning experience for everyone.”

In an introduction letter posted to AREA’s UIS Connection page, Wilson explains that one goal of AREA is to help “combat ableism,” or the discrimination against people with disabilities. In her personal experience, Wilson explains that ableism can manifest in the exclusion of people with disabilities, as well as disrespecting people with invisible disabilities, like chronic illness or learning disabilities.

“[On this campus] it’s nothing intentional. It’s mostly just lack of understanding and lack of being introduced to people with disabilities and not knowing how to act and interact,” Wilson said.

“This campus is one of the more friendly campuses, in my humble opinion,” said Dr. Sarah Weaver, director of the Office of Disability of Services on the UIS campus and one of the faculty advisors for AREA, “and I think one of the reasons is because this school is smaller. I think we have that cohesiveness, that friendliness.”

Dr. Weaver explains that AREA operates outside of the Office of Disability Services, allowing the students to meet and interact beyond the realm of an office setting.

“I think students need that,” Dr. Weaver said. “It’s a student voice; it’s not a voice coming from our office.”

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign hosts the founding chapter of Delta Sigma Omicron – a fraternity “dedicated to education, research, and service in rehabilitation,” according to their mission statement. DSO once attempted to establish at UIS, but it never stuck.

The absence of an organization specifically focused on students with disabilities drove Wilson to creating AREA.

“Our approach is more of introducing disability in an educational yet fun way, through social activities and being able to showcase people with disabilities and their abilities,” Wilson said. “Even though someone may have a disability, they have plenty of other abilities that more than make up for it.”

AREA, which held a kick-off event called Appetizers with AREA on Sept. 1, currently has approximately 30 registered members and is expected to gain more. Wilson explains that AREA is open to all students, and most of the current members do not have disabilities, themselves.

New events are in the works, including a questions and answers forum and a Goalball event, which is a team sport designed for the visually impaired.

“It’s pretty much body soccer/bowling/football,” Wilson said, “It’s tons of fun.”

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