2020 Georgia Tech Diversity Symposium Focuses on Disability Awareness and Inclusion
The 2020 Georgia Tech Diversity Symposium, Understanding Accessibility as Inclusion: Georgia Tech's Pathway to Accessibility, was presented virtually for the first time in the program’s 12-year history on Sept. 9.
Hosted by Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (IDEI), the event featured campus presenters discussing disability awareness and its importance to diversity, inclusion, and the campus community, and more than 600 viewers tuned in. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush.
“Unfortunately, many members of the Tech community have a limited understanding of the term ‘access’ when it comes to understanding the myriad challenges faced by some members of our community,” said Archie Ervin, vice president for IDEI, ahead of the event. “Many of us understand issues of physical access to facilities and technologies. However, fewer realize that many members of our community face additional barriers — both visible and invisible to most of us.”
Featured speaker Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School and author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law School, opened the event and relayed the importance of disability inclusion and disability technologies.
“If we can harness more awareness between disability and technology and innovation, everyone will benefit,” Girma said, speaking with the assistance of a hearing translator and braille computer.
“I have a braille computer; along the bottom are dots. I run my fingers over the dots and feel the patterns,” Girma demonstrated. “The patterns of the dots make braille. During this presentation, this is what I’m using for communication. I have an assistant who will be typing what people are saying.”
Girma urged viewers to let go of the idea that disabilities are a burden. “We have to resist those stories and instead reframe what disability means.” She described winning battles while at Harvard Law (such as successfully arguing for braille menus in campus cafeterias) and learning to salsa dance and surf. Today, she travels the world teaching the benefits of choosing inclusion.
The event also featured three panel presentations and discussions, including a group who discussed their experiences with their disabilities on campus and in everyday life.
“Awareness is only one part of it,” said Danny Housley, assistive technology manager with Tools for Life, part of the College of Design’s Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation (CIDI). “I use a white cane and I’m blind. You’re now aware that I have a disability — what does that change? We want to move toward acceptance of disability and for people to look at it like a trait, like anything else. I may be blind, but that doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of working.”
“I think this is a great step toward things that we need to be doing more of,” added Liz Persaud, also a CIDI staffer and panelist. “Recognizing that we have a diversity symposium and being able to focus specifically on disability issues is unbelievably important.”
Other panels focused on Tech-centered disability technology research and development, design, and Georgia Tech’s IT accessibility policies.
“The 2020 Diversity Symposium raised critical awareness of accessibility issues and exclusion that many in our Georgia Tech community and around the world face due to poor design of the built and digital environment,” said Chantal Kerssens, panelist and CIDI’s executive director and director of research. “Disabilities, permanent and temporary, are much more common than we think. Removing barriers and designing for inclusion opens up society and unlocks joy and productivity from which we all stand to benefit.”
The symposium also featured live captioning from CIDI.
“The Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation was a proud partner in planning the event and we were proud to share our lived experiences, our scholarship, and our service to communities around the country,” Kerssens added.
The event ended with the annual awards presented to this year’s Faces of Inclusive Excellence honorees and the Diversity Champion Awards honorees, who were recognized for their achievements in accessibility and inclusion on campus. They included Cassie S. Mitchell, assistant professor, Biomedical Engineering (faculty winner); Johan “John” Rempel, UX/ICT quality assurance manager, CIDI (staff winner); Nandita Gupta, graduate student, Human-Computer Interaction (student winner); and the Writing and Communication Program in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts School of Literature, Media, and Communication (unit winner).
“This year’s Diversity Symposium told the story that every person in the Tech community is valued and entitled to full access to all that we have to offer to fulfill each person’s aspirations, Ervin added. “Seeing access as an issue of inclusion demonstrates that everyone is welcomed and that we should all be dedicated to eliminating barriers of any kind for our community members.”
To learn more and to view the event’s panel recordings, visit: diversity.gatech.edu/12th-annual-georgia-tech-diversity-symposium.
A full transcript of the event is also available here.