New student group WLUnite forms to support people with disabilities

The new student organization will focus on inclusivity and education for Washington and Lee’s campus


Laura Calhoun

A new student organization designed to support students with disabilities is forming.

Alexandra Miyamoto, ’23, held an interest meeting for what’s now known as WLUnite on Wednesday, Nov. 6. About 20 people attended the meeting, including Lauren Kozak, Title XI coordinator and director of disability services, and Tamara Futrell, the dean for diversity, inclusion and student engagement.

Miyamoto defined disability “in the broadest sense of the word,” spanning physical, mental, visible and invisible disabilities. She shared that her motivation to start the organization was personal.

“I have Crohn’s Disease, which is an autoimmune disease, and it falls under invisible disabilities. Coming here, I was really excited… to see if there was a community I could be a part of,” Miyamoto said. “I realized there wasn’t that space that I was kind of expecting. There are clubs for all other types of identifiers, but there wasn’t really one for disabilities.”

She decided to start an organization that would provide the support she hoped to see on campus. Initially, she turned to Futrell with the university’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement to help get her footing.

“Disability is definitely part of equity and inclusion and diversity – it’s just how different people are different,” Miyamoto said. “It’s another type of identity, and I think that… OIE wants to help people with those identities flourish within the community.”

At the interest meeting, Miyamoto outlined three main goals for the organization: to create a support network for people on campus with disabilities, to educate other students on campus about disabilities and to inform people about how to be better allies to people with disabilities.

Miyamoto hopes that the organization can work with both students and community members to build inclusivity for people who are disabled and dispel the stigma.

“Identifying as disabled, there’s a lot of stigma with it, more so than other identifiers,” she said. “I would like people to proudly say that they’re disabled and be able to generate more conversations and more community outreach.”

Many students at the meeting shared personal stories about experiences that made them want to get involved with the organization.

The Ring-tum Phi reached out to some of those students for further comment.

Clare Essex, ’21, said she started thinking more about higher education and its accessibility for students after her cousin, Charlie, who has Down syndrome, started looking at colleges.

“There are several colleges now that have full-blown programs for students with cognitive impairments,” Essex said. “[Washington and Lee] would never even be a school he would look at.”

Grace Stricklin, ’23, recognized the physical challenges that campus presents to people with disabilities.

“My brother has cerebral palsy, so I’ve grown up really close to physical disability,” Stricklin said. “One of the first things I noticed [on campus] was that you can’t get around here really well in a wheelchair.”

Both Essex and Stricklin said they hope to stay involved with the organization.

Futrell said she was excited that people attended the meeting and seemed eager to build a community of both students who are disabled and their allies.

“Because of concern about being stigmatized or the sentiment of being bothered, a lot of students have been a little hesitant to form an organization or to rally,” Futrell said. “I think this is wonderful because I think there is power in numbers.”

Futrell mentioned that she and Kozak have discussed how to help the campus see disabilities as an aspect of diversity. As the director of disability services, Kozak works with students who have disabilities to identify appropriate accommodations during their time on campus.

She spoke openly in the meeting about her hopes for more comprehensive reforms.

“Accommodations are the bare minimum. They’re not inclusive. They are reactive,” Kozak said. “I feel like the more accessible we are, there’s less need for accommodations because people just get to show up and it’s ready for them.”

The organization held a second meeting on Thursday, Nov. 14 and decided its official name: WLUnite. Miyamoto is working on forming a leadership team and submitting the application to be recognized as a student organization.

Interested students can contact Alexandra Miyamoto at [email protected] to learn more about WLUnite.