Through the Student Lens – Student Accessibility Board Chair works with the community to enhance campus life

Jolie Gagnon ’24
Major: English / Minors: Women’s & Gender Studies and Political Science
Hometown: Sebascodegan Island in Harpswell, Maine

How can students advocate for themselves and others while effecting change across campus? Meet one student who is working to take away any stigma surrounding the word, “disabled” and enhancing life in the Wheaton community as you take a look “Through the Student Lens.” 

You chair the Accessibility Board for the Student Government Association (SGA). Can you talk about the Board’s mission and impact?

The Accessibility Board is a 9-student executive board. We also have a Student Panel with between 10-20 members. Check out our Instagram: @wheatonaccessibility, to see our full roster, our current initiatives, events, and additional information.

The Accessibility Board was established in the spring of 2019 at the suggestion of prior SGA President Sophia Hatzikos ‘20. At that time, there was little to no representation for disabled Wheaton students in student government. Mikaela Savarese ‘22 was the first chair and is now one of my closest friends.

Mikaela worked with five other students to create a student group representative of all types of disabilities (physical, visible, invisible, chronic health conditions, mental illness, etc.). The goal of the group was, in part, to advocate for disabled students at Wheaton and to improve both physical accessibility and access to mental health resources. Most of their efforts went towards teaching student leaders, faculty, staff and administrators about accessibility and how to increase the visibility of disabled students.

“The Original 6” (as Mikaela and I call them) worked to impress upon others that “disability is not a dirty word” and that using the word, “disabled” can work to reduce stigma.

The Board’s current goal is to use policy and communication to improve all realms of accessibility, whether that be physical, mental, academic, or social accessibility, etc. I firmly believe that “disabled” and “disability” are not dirty words and that using them reduces stigma and creates visibility for our disabled peers.

Some of our current initiatives include:

  • adequate clearing of snow on campus to allow students with mobility aids and balance issues to effectively navigate after storms
  • educating students and staff on the differences between service dogs and emotional support animals
  • general education on Grace’s Disability Signs and invisible disabilities (as was started by the previous chair, Julianne Morse ‘24, and Trisha Harithsa ‘25)
  • improving dining hall accessibility
  • allowing smooth communication between students and staff
  • helping students learn to navigate the accommodations process effectively and efficiently
  • helping students learn how to advocate for themselves and their peers through modeling the most impactful forms of activism

People who are interested can join the Accessibility Board by submitting a digital application in either the spring or fall semester. We email applications and also post the links on our Instagram. 

If someone is unsure if they want to be a member of the Accessibility Board but still want to participate, make friends, or be a part of our community, they can (and should!) attend our bi-weekly open meetings.

What inspired your participation on the Accessibility Board?

I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which is an incurable genetic disability resulting in chronic pain, extreme fatigue, intense brain fog, and frequent injuries, among a host of other symptoms. Being a disabled student who attends Wheaton has allowed me to experience firsthand the problems and experiences shared by much of Wheaton’s disabled student population. 

I ran for the Accessibility Board Chair because I have a passion for advocacy. I also feel strongly that disabled people should be representing disabled people because the strongest connections and understandings come from lived experience. 

Do you have a favorite project or accomplishment that the board completed or achieved that you are most proud of?

On December 1st, the Accessibility Board hosted an open office hours session that had phenomenal attendance, constructive conversation, lots of questions, feedback, and direct criticism.

We held this event in response to serious and upsetting student concerns about our campus’s physical accessibility. The open office hours took an immense amount of planning. The members of the Accessibility Board Executive Board and Student Panel worked with intense passion and dedication, and I am so proud of all of them. Some Accessibility Board members served as moderators, door holders, note-takers, and Zoom monitors during the event. Over 80 students, staff, administrators, and parents attended the session (both in person and over Zoom) and unanimously voted to have the meeting continue for another hour. Some staff, faculty, and administrators stayed until 10 p.m. (despite living over an hour away from campus) so that they could continue to answer questions, learn, and engage with the community. Their dedication was extreme and did not go unnoticed. It was the most productive, constructive conversation I have seen students have with staff and administrators during my time at Wheaton. Every single person respectfully listened while many posed questions, suggested solutions, and voiced their frustrations. I was nervous that the meeting might become derailed or defensive. But, the Wheaton community proved how much they care, how much they want to make change and how willing they are to advocate respectfully in order to ensure that change is possible. It was an incredible experience, and I am so thankful to every single person who attended and every single person who helped plan the event.

How do you think this activity contributes to your Wheaton experience?

Being the Accessibility Board Chair started out as an outlet for me to further come to terms with my disability and to be the person I wished was available to me in my first year at Wheaton.

It became the experience that makes me feel most connected to my peers, my friends and my community. It has shaped me as an advocate, an ally, and as a person. I feel much more prepared for the workplace and have learned invaluable skills about professionalism, political and respectful advocacy methods. I’ve learned how to turn passion, frustration, and even rage into meaningful, attainable action steps and solutions.

I’ve met some of my closest friends through the Accessibility Board, and certainly met the people with whom my experiences most closely align. It’s incredible to be friends with others who understand what it’s like to live with debilitating pain and fatigue. There are many parts of Wheaton that I love, but working as part of the Accessibility Board is the part of the Wheaton experience that has made me feel the most alive and the most human. I love it here and I have so much respect and admiration for all the folks I’ve met (and will continue to meet) along the way.

Jolie is just one of the many engaging students here at Wheaton. As parents and guardians, you are an integral part of our community. “Through the Student Lens” brings the campus to you, as seen through the eyes of our students, the many roles they play and the experiences they gain during their time here at Wheaton.