Balloons were blown up, certificates were framed, cameras were flashing and speakers were brought in to honor graduating students registered with the Office for Accessible Campus Community & Equitable Student Support.
The event, titled Gateway Graduation, was the brainchild of a former SIUE student who utilized ACCESS, according to Director of ACCESS Dominic Dorsey. After seeing a large amount of student interest, the office began putting together the celebration.
Dorsey made it clear the celebration is not to honor the office, but to keep the focus on students who will be walking across the stage this weekend.
“I know that some people may say that them graduating is a testament to what we do, my thought process is it’s a testament to what they’ve done,” Dorsey said. “Disability, diagnosis, learning difference, you know, there are so many students who enter higher education and they don’t make it to this point. That’s why there are celebrations in the first place.”
According to Dorsey, SIUE’s proximity to St. Louis, known as the “gateway to the West,” and larger conversations in working with people with disabilities inspired the event being deemed “Gateway Graduation.”
“We also talk about how, when it comes to students with disabilities and individuals with disabilities, there’s a significant level of gatekeeping,” Dorsey said in his speech. “There’s always people who are telling you what you can or cannot have access to or having to ask individuals what you can have access to.”
Dorsey also told the graduates they have been equipped to succeed after graduation.
“We want to use this as an opportunity to celebrate the fact that you don’t need keys to success or you don’t need keys to ask people for permission,” Dorsey said. “We are allowing you to walk over this threshold into the next phase of your lives with the confidence necessary, [and] the self-advocacy necessary to take the things that are rightfully yours without asking for permission, to go into a world that is going to hopefully embrace you and give you the opportunities and recognize you and affirm you without the need for additional requests, but also [to] say that you’ve been equipped up to this point to [handle] those issues should they arise.”
The importance of self-advocacy was a theme throughout the celebration. While ACCESS will not follow students once they graduate, Dorsey said he is confident students who have walked through its doors have learned to be their own advocates.
“An invaluable skill that everybody needs to learn is to be able to know how to advocate for themselves and express to others exactly what they need,” Dorsey said. “I think that’s a very specific skill that always needs to be honed, but [going through] the accommodation process in an interactive setting and not just ‘Okay you have this, boom this is what you get,’ but really talking through it, helps them to be able to understand that process so they can facilitate it themselves when they go to the next phase, because even though other employment agencies don’t have an ACCESS office or a disability support services office or anything along those lines, they do still have the opportunity to ask for an accommodation if necessary and they go to work with their HR department to get it.”
However, keynote speaker Wendy Settles, independent living specialist at IMPACT Center for Independent Living and SIUE alumna, recognizes that not all are at the same point on the journey of self-advocacy, and therefore talked about the importance of looking out for others.
“I think the biggest thing [the graduates] can do is just make sure when they see something they know isn’t right and when they see inequality and discrimination and ableism that they speak up for themselves and for others,” Settles said. “Self-advocacy is huge — it’s a big deal — but sometimes people haven’t quite found their voice yet.”
In her speech, Settles discussed how the road ahead might not be as smooth as it would be for people without disabilities, advocacy is the key to making things better for future generations.
“As you’re about to graduate with an actual education, I want to leave you with a quote from Ed Roberts,” Settles said to the graduates. “Ed Roberts said, ‘The biggest lesson in the civil rights movement is the moment you let others speak for you, you will lose.’ I wish I could flip a switch for you and make things a little bit easier, but I can’t. But I do know that the louder your voice is, the easier things will get for you, and hopefully at some point in your life the obstacles that I’ve faced in the past and that you are facing now will no longer be a problem.”
The four students honored were not the only Fall 2019 graduates registered with ACCESS, but were students who wished to be recognized at Thursday’s event. Dorsey estimates there are 31 graduating students who registered with their office.
One student who signed up was Safeer Pyarali, who will soon be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business economics. Pyarali said he saw the ability to celebrate as a group as the most important aspect of the event.
“I feel like this is also a group that collectively needs to be celebrated, so to me, the short answer is just to have that group celebration,” Pyarali said. “For me, it wasn’t even individually, but working together [and] graduating together. I’m just happy for all four and obviously the many that are going forward.”
Dorsey said as long as enough students continue to show interest in the event, future graduates will be honored in the same way.
“I don’t want to do things just because it’s the way it has always been done,” Dorsey said. “Let’s be intentional; lets let the students lead; let’s let what’s motivating them and what they value be the reason that we’re doing it instead of doing it just for the sake of saying we did it.”