Clockwise from top: Amy Kenny, the inaugural associate director of the university’s Disability Cultural Initiative and author of My Body Is Not a Prayer Request; Tiffany Yu (B’10), founder of the student group Diversability, now a nationwide community network; and Dominic DeRamo (C’23), student advocate and member of the Georgetown Disability Alliance.
Called to Be: Access & Excellence

Title:Toward a more accessible, inclusive Georgetown

Author: Sara Piccini
Date Published: April 29, 2023

The plaza at the heart of Georgetown’s main campus, known as Red Square, is typically jammed with students advocating for a variety of causes. Capturing the attention of passersby can often be challenging.

One day last October, Briana Valle (C’23) arrived at Red Square and set up a table with an eye-catching feature—containers of colorful Legos.

As the student academic assistant for Georgetown’s new Disability Cultural Initiative, Valle was promoting the initiative’s “Ramping Up Access” by inviting community members to help build a Lego ramp. “We were handing out sheets with recommendations on how to make your office, club, and classroom more accessible,” says Valle. “People saw those large buckets of Legos and were super excited to stop by.”

people use legos
In October 2022, students from across campus joined in building a colorful Lego ramp as part of the DCI’s “Ramping Up Access” initiative. The construction project and DCI associate director Amy Kenny’s initial test drive of the ramp is featured on Georgetown’s Instagram page. Photo: Rebecca Zhu/The Hoya

“The ramp is now on tour across campus—it has visited the president’s office, the library, the Leavey Center, and Cawley Career Center, among other sites,” says Amy Kenny, who leads the initiative as inaugural associate director. “It’s a way of celebrating the disability community and generating awareness about our brand-new Disability Cultural Initiative.

“The ramp itself is a beautiful mosaic of colors and shapes and sizes,” says Kenny, who was the first to give the ramp a test-drive in her mobility scooter. “I think that’s a perfect metaphor for what access looks like in practice—that we all get to come together and create access for our co-flourishing.”

‘Students have led the way’

The Disability Cultural Initiative, established in Fall 2022, is the most recent among an expanding number of programs at Georgetown designed to promote disability access, awareness, and empowerment, including student groups such as the Georgetown Disability Alliance on the main campus and its law school counterpart, Active Minds, and GU Signs, created in 2013 by Deaf and allied advocates Timothy Loh (SFS’15, G’16), Nia Lazarus (C’16), and Courtney Nugent (C’15).

In 2021, Tiffany Yu (B’10)—founder of Diversability, the first disability student group at Georgetown and now a thriving national network—provided seed money to establish the Disability Empowerment Endowment Fund. As the endowment continues to grow over the coming years, it will serve as a catalyst for additional disability initiatives across the university.

On the academic side, the multidisciplinary Program in Disability Studies, led by philosophy professor and ethicist Quill Kukla, comprises 75 to 80 undergraduate minors each year. In addition, graduate students can take coursework leading to an MA or Ph.D. certificate in Disability Studies. The program has also co-sponsored a number of scholar/ activists in residence with the Disability Cultural Initiative, as well as a student fellowship focused on mental illness and disability justice.

a woman who uses a wheelchair is in front of a mosaic
Amy Kenny, the inaugural associate director of the university’s Disability Cultural Initiative and author of My Body Is Not a Prayer Request. Photo: Courtesy of Amy Kenny

“Georgetown students have led the way in the call for this work,” Kenny emphasizes. In 2014, for example, students joined with English professor Libbie Rifkin and other faculty members to begin advocating for the formal creation of the disability studies program. Among other efforts, the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA) launched a petition drive in 2016 that garnered more than a thousand signatures. The program was launched the following year with Rifkin serving as the founding director, succeeded by Jennifer Natalya Fink, a professor of English at Georgetown College of Arts & Sciences.

“The program became a site for mentoring and networking for students, and the Georgetown Disability Alliance grew up in the aftermath,” Rifkin says.

“Disability culture is now very alive at Georgetown,” says Rifkin, who now serves as the first special advisor to the vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion for disability.

Students also spearheaded the campaign to establish the Disability Cultural Initiative—a critical move toward the ultimate goal of a full-fledged center—reviving a 2012 proposal written by then-undergraduate Lydia X. Z. Brown (C’15).

“Something that I’ve been very pleased about is knowing that I have been part of multiple generations of people working to challenge and transform conditions at Georgetown. That work has just continued to grow,” says Brown, a prominent disability advocate who returned to Georgetown in 2020 as a member of the disability studies faculty.

‘Proud and inclusive’

According to Kenny, 14 percent of undergraduate students and 10 percent of graduate and professional students at Georgetown currently identify as disabled.

In promoting disability empowerment, she and other activists call for a definition of disability based on gain rather than loss—“the notion that disability is tragic or burdensome or pitiable,” as Kenny puts it.

“I think of disability as a culture and an embodied experience that contributes to society and that non-disabled people can learn from,” says Kenny. “The world is not made for us or with us, so disability is a creative force that imagines a new world.” She notes that everything from the electric toothbrush to the touch screen was created by and for disabled people.

“Disability is diverse, intersectional, proud, and inclusive,” adds Kenny. “It includes both apparent and non-apparent disabilities, and many of us have both of those.”

Rifkin has found that Georgetown students often come to understand they have a disability after enrolling in a disability studies course. “Students who take our classes do it as part of their formation, and that has been a really amazing thing to be able to participate in,” she says.

Dominic DeRamo (C’23), a campus disability activist, traveled on that journey when he enrolled in a disability course in the fall semester of his first year.

“I knew I had a chronic illness, but I never really saw disability as an identity and as a culture. I joined the Georgetown Disability Alliance, and I found that there were so many people who could put words to experiences that were very similar to ones I had when I was younger.”

Briana Valle, who like DeRamo is a disability studies minor, singles out their Introduction to Disability course with Professor Mimi Khúc as particularly impactful.

“She focused quite a bit on mental health, and it was so helpful to see how that can intersect with disability, because most people tend to exclude it,” says Valle, who experiences depression. Valle hopes to eventually apply the insight they’ve gained by working as a family counselor.

“Professor Khúc also really understood the reality of being a student here, and how we tend to see our productivity as our value, which should not be the case.”

Understanding ableism

As Valle notes, Georgetown’s fast-paced academic and social environment presents challenges to every student. Having a disability compounds these challenges. Even something as simple as an elevator being out of order adds additional stress for a physically disabled student rushing to get to class on time. This is something the Disability Cultural Initiative is working with campus partners to change.

Requesting special classroom accommodations, such as extra time for tests, is often stressful, Valle says. “It can be a little traumatic—you have to overshare a lot of your experiences for them to begin the process of accepting your accommodation.”

I joined the Georgetown Disability Alliance, and I found that there were so many people who could put words to experiences that were very similar to ones I had when I was younger.

— Dominic DeRamo (C’23)

To address some of these issues, disability studies faculty members Brown and Khúc teamed up to develop the course Disability Justice at GU. The course confronts the reality of what is termed ableism: discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior.

“There’s a drive to constantly try to earn one’s worth through achieving certain grades, or landing prestigious opportunities, or performing a certain job,” says Brown. “It reinforces the belief that you are not a valuable person, that you don’t deserve respect, if you are unable to sufficiently justify your existence based on these arbitrarily determined standards.”

“The course was created as a way to offer students a chance to re-examine what ways they’ve internalized and perpetuated ableist values in relationship to their own needs and in relationship to their work,” says Brown. “It provides opportunities to invite practices of care into their lives.”

Initiatives like Brown’s class, originated for students with disabilities, have the potential to benefit every student at Georgetown—disabled and non-disabled alike. “We’re in a university setting where there are all of these pressures on us to constantly be producing, constantly be performing,” says DeRamo. “Non-disabled students also feel these expectations and the inaccessibility of meeting them.”

The Disability Cultural Initiative is working with campus partners to provide a culture of access inside and outside the classroom, from consulting with faculty on inclusive pedagogy, to creating a Disability Employee Resource Group for faculty and staff, to working with a team that launched a new accessibility website to educate and enhance awareness about disability resources and community on campus.

Capturing the moment

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 further raised awareness of access needs for all students on campus. Working to meet those needs, and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRamo and a group of other student activists— including Nesreen Shahrour (H’23) and Gwyneth Murphy (SFS’23)—embraced the moment.

“With everyone’s concern for social justice, and people’s growing understanding of accessibility and accommodation, we found ourselves wanting to take on a very big effort, something that was really going to have a permanent impact on the university,” DeRamo says.

a man with glasses in a tie
Dominic DeRamo (C’23), student advocate and member of the Georgetown Disability Alliance. Photo: Courtesy of Dominic DeRamo (C’23)

“Nesreen, in going through old archives, found Lydia Brown’s proposal for a Disability Cultural Center. And so we revamped the proposal,” he continues. The students then met with a group of activist alumni to get feedback and improve their presentation, including Brown, Tiffany Yu, and longtime disability rights advocate John Kemp (C’71).

“I was in my dorm last spring when I got the email that the university had officially committed to hiring a director for a new Disability Cultural Initiative. It happened much more quickly than we expected,” says DeRamo.

“One of the absolute most special moments was when I had a new student tell me how much it meant to her that all these initiatives were going on,” he says. “I think that’s what’s so important about what the university is committing to.”

A vote of confidence

The alumni call organized by Rifkin sparked another special moment—Tiffany Yu’s announcement that she would provide $50,000 towards the $100,000 required to establish a university endowment, to be called the Disability Empowerment Endowment Fund.

“I remember keeping my mouth closed to keep my jaw from dropping. We were all just absolutely blown away,” says DeRamo.

Plans are for the endowment to support existing and new disability initiatives, from speaker series and conferences to student and faculty research projects.

a woman next to a tree in a hat and tangerine shirt
Tiffany Yu (B’10), founder of the student group Diversability, now a nationwide community network. Photo: Courtesy of Tiffany Yu (B’10)

Yu sees her donation as both a means of empowerment and a tribute to the role Georgetown played in her own development. “One of the things that really guides my work is how I can use whatever power and privilege I have to fight for more disability equity and justice,” she says. “And being in a situation where I feel financially stable, I wanted to contribute back to the place where my advocacy career had started.”

She was also inspired by funding she received as an undergraduate to start the student group Diversability, a Reimagine Georgetown grant sponsored by The Corp. “My entire advocacy career began with a $500 grant that I received from my peers. I will never forget it—it wasn’t really about the $500, it was about the fact that someone believed in me, and me internalizing that message.”

At age 9, Yu was involved in a car accident that killed her father and left her right arm permanently paralyzed. “I think about all the other 9-year-old Tiffanys who feel so alone in their experience. This endowment can provide a little bit of a vote of confidence in you and whatever you’re trying to do with your life.”

Ramping up

“Disability is an identity that cuts across all other identities,” Libbie Rifkin emphasizes. “So it can be a bridge and connector for people with a whole variety of experiences.”

a woman in front of a bookshelf
Professor of English Libbie Rifkin helped to pioneer the Disability Studies program. “I have a now 19-year-old son Joseph who was born with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability. It made me think very differently about our positioning in the world.” Photo: Courtesy of Libbie Rifkin

In leading the new Disability Cultural Initiative, Amy Kenny is particularly focused on making these connections with affinity groups across campus, sponsoring coffee clubs, art nights, chaplains’ teas, and more.

“We’ve hosted events with the South Asian Society, Casa Latina, Queer Space and others, and have developed relationships with Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, the Center for Research and Fellowships, the Center for Social Justice, the Office of Global Education, Mission & Ministry, and Cawley Career Center,” says Kenny. DCI is part of OSEI, the Office of Student Equity and Inclusion, and promotes intersectionality in programming and support for students.

“Accessiblity is much more than ramps—it’s a practice and an ethos and a way of caring for one another.”

—Amy Kenny

Briana Valle was especially excited for DCI to organize a zine-making workshop during the fall semester with disabled Afro-Latina artist Jennifer White-Johnson, which attracted a diverse group of students.

“I’ve found as a Latinx person, disability is not really spoken about,” says Valle. “It was really amazing to hear how she’s embraced it.”

a woman in a library
Briana Valle (C’23), student academic assistant for the Disability Cultural Initiative and a disability studies minor. Photo: Jane Varner Malhotra

Spring events included a gaming arcade, a collaboration with Queer Space and the Maker Hub to create stim bracelets and fidget spinners, and a showcase of student art in various mediums, held at Riggs Library. The initiative also plans to hold the first-ever “DisCO Grad” in May 2023, a special commencement ceremony for students with disabilities.

“A lot of this work is helping to invite the community to imagine disability as a culture and an identity, and to continue the work our students have advocated for,” adds Kenny. “I’m thrilled to work alongside them.”

Agents of change

Georgetown is among just a handful of universities to sponsor a disability cultural initiative, and Kenny’s hope is that Georgetown can be a leader nationwide in this area, enriched by its Jesuit mission.

“Accessibility is much more than ramps—it’s a practice and an ethos and a way of caring for one another,” says Kenny. “It’s creating an inclusive space that acknowledges that all of us have access needs, and that we as a community get to meet those access needs as part of our commitment to cura personalis, or care of the whole person.

“I think our Jesuit values really offer a grounding and depth of this work that allow us to be agents of change, by pursuing justice and calling others to do the same.”

The Disability Cultural Initiative is one of the many ways Georgetown is ensuring that our student community thrives and becomes the university we are called to be. Learn more at

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