Students with Disabilities Explore Advocacy

GW collaborated with the American Association of People with Disabilities to offer a certificate program in disability advocacy.

Disability Advocacy
The George Washington University has partnered with the American Association for People with Disabilities (AAPD) to offer a summer course in disability advocacy. (Photo: Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
July 20, 2018

By Tatyana Hopkins

Laura Power, a rising first-year graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, has long been passionate about social justice and politics but was unsure how it would translate to a career. 

“Social justice and community organizing is something I’ve always been passionate about, but I didn’t really know how to do it,” Ms. Power said.

Studying disability advocacy at the George Washington University this summer, she said, has empowered her to explore new job opportunities in grassroots organizing after she completes her master’s in public health.

Ms. Power is one of 27 students enrolled in the inaugural cohort of GW’s new Disability Advocacy Certificate Program, launched this summer for participants of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) Summer Internship Program in collaboration with the College of Professional Studies (CPS) Semester in Washington program.

All students in the AAPD cohort self-identify as being a person with a disability. 

“There needs to be more of us who are willing to pursue opportunities in ‘normal’ spaces that don’t have a lot of disabled people and be like, ‘Hey, you’ve never had to think about how to modify this for a person in a wheelchair before, and I want to be your test case, and I’m interested in whatever you can throw at me,’” said Ms. Power, who uses a motorized wheelchair. 


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Tony Coelho, former California congressmen and primary House sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, spoke with students in GW’s Disability Advocacy Certification Program. (Photo: Tatyana Hopkins/GW Today)


Since 1995, Semester in Washington has bought hundreds of students and recent graduates to Washington, D.C., for internships and political education.

“[Semester in Washington] has interns across the city, in both the U.S. government and local government. The program really is an immersion of trying to figure out what’s going on in American politics,” said Robert Engel, director of Semester in Washington.

The opportunity to offer courses in disability advocacy is something Mr. Engel hoped to bring to the program for some time, he said. After doing organizing work in the disability community, he thought GW would be a great place to establish such a program.

“The university is a training center, and GW can make sure that [students] are educated and able to be mobilized to help disabled people of any stripe,” he said.

The former CPS dean and the GW director of Disability Support Services greenlit Mr. Engel’s quest to establish a program, and potentially a center, for disability advocacy. Discussions with former congressmen and primary sponsors of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the House and Senate, respectively, Tony Coelho and Tom Harkin led Mr. Engel to connect with AAPD.

“We had thought about doing a bigger program on disabilities at GW, and [AAPD], which has long been organizing the disability community, was very receptive and wanted to collaborate,” Mr. Engel said.

He said the Disability Advocacy Certification Program courses were modeled after Semester in Washington’s Native American Political Leadership Program, which offers Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaskan Native students a full scholarship and an opportunity to take courses on the electoral process and the impact of legislative issues specifically on native communities. It also provides participants internships on Capitol Hill, in offices of policy organizations and non-profits.

While AAPD’s summer internship program has placed its more than 300 alumni in internships with federal agencies and non-profits since 2000, this is the first year that the full-scholarship program has had a formal academic component, said Zach Baldwin, director of outreach at AAPD.

The 10-week certificate program is comprised of two weekly courses held on Fridays. The first course provides an overview of elections and the legislative process. It culminates in students drafting policy recommendations to a member of Congress based on research of that member’s district and voting history.

“People generally know how the government functions and how our political system works, but this class really lays out the foundation of all of this information,” Mr. Baldwin said. “It’s incredibly important [for students] to have this background knowledge as they go onto whatever career path [they choose].”

The second course focuses specifically on disability advocacy across a range of issues such as disability and employment, healthcare and education. Students are also taught about intersectional disability activism.

"We talk about women with disability, people of color with disability, poor people with disability, [how] people with chronic illness were often ignored in the disability community... stuff like that," said Megan Lambert, a rising junior at University of California, Merced.

Students heard from more than two dozen policy analysts, lobbyists, activists, educators and federal representatives, including Mr. Coelho.

“One of the nice things about the certificate program is how many types of issue experts it’s allowed us to bring into the classes,” said Carrie Wade, AAPD’s program manager. “We are able to reach out to a lot more people that are doing disability advocacy and social justice initiatives.”

Ms. Wade said that while she, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Engel facilitate the courses, the guest speakers offer more insight and perspective for students regarding the broad range of policy issues and career opportunities in disability advocacy.

Kurt Vogel, a rising fourth-year student in an inclusive post-secondary program at Georgia Institute of Technology, said the courses have helped him merge his passion for information technology with disability advocacy.

“This summer has helped me get an idea of some the things I can do when I go back home in terms of disability advocacy in my own community and from a career perspective,” Mr. Vogel said.

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