Accessibility Coalition recognized for disability advocacy during annual Pitchfork Awards
Each year, the Pitchfork Awards at Arizona State University aim to recognize and celebrate organizations, events and students that impact the university and community.
During the annual ceremony last month, the Accessibility Coalition (AccessCo) was honored for its advocacy for marginalized groups and those living with disabilities.
In a recent conversation with Haley Tenore, president of the coalition and a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, she detailed the objectives of AccessCo and talked about what the Pitchfork Award means for the organization.
Tenore also outlined ways that the ASU community can get involved in this type of activism.
Question: Please introduce yourself.
Answer: My name is Haley Tenore and I’m a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’m working towards a BA in journalism and mass communication, and I’m on track to graduate in fall 2022. I’m also the president of Accessibility Coalition at ASU.
Q: Congratulations on receiving the Pitchfork Award for your organization’s work in the community. How exciting! Can you tell us about Accessibility Coalition?
A: The mission of Accessibility Coalition is that we work to combat ableism, stigma and discrimination against disabled, chronically ill, mentally ill and neurodivergent people at ASU, whether it be in the classroom — either on campus or online — in student organizations or in employment. We have over 100 members on our OrgSync page in our Discord server. One important thing to note is that we are a disability-led organization, so all of our e-board members have a disability — some visible, some not. This is important to mention because I believe that disabled people are the true experts on disability; we have lived experience and know how to advocate for ourselves, so we should be the spearheaders of the disability justice movement. We have eight e-board positions, and a cool quirk about our coalition is that each position can be held by two people at a time. Having two spots available makes it easier for e-board members to take time off for their physical, mental or emotional health.
I’m one of the co-presidents, so I attend Council of Coalition meetings, lead our e-board and general meetings, and guide the e-board members in their positions. We are still a very young organization, so it’s a learning curve for us. I’ve been involved in this organization since the beginning, for the most part. I used to be president of Autistics on Campus, an organization for autistic students. Then I was invited to be involved with the formation of the (Accessibility) Coalition. The coalition was formed by a Humanities Lab called Disrupting Disability, then it became a collaboration among different student organizations that focus on disability and mental health.
Ultimately, my goal is to build this coalition. The other seven coalitions hold events every year, which always amazes me! I would love to see us do something like that while making sure it's accessible. We must keep in mind that members are immunocompromised, have sensory issues, photosensitivity or a variety of other conditions that we need to accommodate. Also, there is a social component to our organization; being disabled can be isolating, so we want to help combat that. As someone who has faced extreme loneliness, which is a problem that is really common among autistic people, you should never underestimate the importance of having friends when it comes to mental and physical health.
Q: What’s the most crucial aspect of working on these kinds of social problems?
A: Generally speaking, I care about all types of social issues that impact any marginalized groups, but my focus is disability. I think any disparity is important because I believe in equality. I think it's crucial to talk about ableism because it’s still a big problem. I think a lot of people still subconsciously harbor ableist views and beliefs.
Q: How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspired you to work for social change?
A: I was born with my disability: I was diagnosed at 2 years old, so that’s how I got involved. The longer answer is it took me a while to come to terms with my disability. I spent my childhood being bullied and ignored because of my autism. It wasn’t because other kids knew about my autism, they just thought I was weird, but bullying someone for their autistic traits is just as bad. The harassment got to its worst when I was in middle school. I was being called the "r-word" every day until I was pulled out of school by my family and homeschooled.
Then, when I was 14, I first learned about feminism. I learned about women's rights, communities of color and the LGBTQ community. When I was 15, I went back to public school but I didn’t tell anyone about my autism and I still struggled with internalized ableism. I didn’t want to be autistic, I just wanted to be “normal.” It wasn’t until college when I began to make the connection between social justice and my autism. I realized that I had the unique experience of being autistic, both positive and negative. I learned what the term “masking” was and that I was masking my autism.
I also learned about autism and found influencers and people online with similar experiences. There are negatives to social media, but I credit Twitter, Instagram and TikTok to being able to find other autistic and neurodivergent women who were just like me. Then I got involved in Autistics on Campus, then Accessibility Coalition and now here I am.
I don’t want to project an idea that I’m 100% perfect and comfortable, because I’m still working on that. I still struggle with internalized ableism, and there are times that I’m afraid to tell people about my autism because you never know who will be supportive or who will start spouting microaggressions — intentionally or unintentionally. Or sometimes, people will slowly drift out of your life because they don’t understand you. It can be traumatic to see how people react negatively to something that you can’t change about yourself. But I am slowly learning that I don’t need those people and that I can be successful just by being open; being in AccessCo and seeing our success is helping me realize that. Now, we have a whole wave of women, AFAB people and femmes who are realizing that they’re autistic. Usually, a lot of women and people assigned female at birth don’t get diagnosed until later in life due to the disparities in research, since autism was originally only researched in boys and men. Now, I know that there is a specific type of trauma that stems from learning about a condition that you didn’t know you had, such as realizing all of the accommodations and help that you didn’t get.
So my experience is different, but I am starting to see that I’m not so different after all.
Q: Do you consider yourself an activist?
A: I would say so. I work to create a better world for disabled students on campus, so I think that would make me an activist.
Q: What are some of the approaches and methods you use in your activism?
A: My approach is seeking out as many people as possible, because there is power in numbers. I say this as someone who used to be president of a small organization — that I felt was going nowhere — which made me feel like I was putting in so much physical and emotional labor and getting nothing out of it. Having others in my organization with similar goals is a lot more powerful and helps me get more done while not overextending myself.
I’m also working towards spreading education around campus. We are starting up initiatives to educate different student organizations about disability and accessibility. To be blunt, some people don’t care about disability; they put on a front, and some organizations can feel cliquey and hostile. But for those with open minds, we want to educate. I’m also planning on starting up a series on our Instagram page where we post infographics on different types of disabilities.
Q: What are some of the problems you face in this work?
A: The biggest issue is that when you’re advocating for a group that you’re a part of, it causes activism fatigue, which can lead to burnout. In my experience in autism advocacy, there’s a lot of conflict, a lot of people still "lighting it up blueLight It Up Blue is a campaign of the organization Autism Speaks, which seeks to spread awareness about autism. The organization has been criticized for furthering stigma and misunderstanding about the condition.," donating to Autism Speaks, but still not being educated on how to support autistic folks. It’s emotional labor; there are days that make me very upset and emotional. Sometimes, I don’t want to look at the hashtags or argue about whether people with autism should exist, especially with people who don’t have experience living in your brain and body.
I also want to mention the Council of Coalitions, because all of us are doing emotional labor by advocating and planning events for our communities while often being unpaid or underpaid. Self-care is so important because this work can be tiring. The only thing that’s kept me going for this long is being around like-minded people with similar goals and similar experiences, which is very validating.
Q: What skills do you need in this work?
A: Empathy is a big one. Also, the ability to know when to be quiet when you don’t know about something or you don’t have that lived experience. For example, if someone comes up to me asking for an interview about wheelchair accessibility, I can answer some basic questions about that, but I would also refer that person to some of the AccessCo members who are wheelchair users because they can speak on that more thoroughly. Same thing for someone who wants to talk to me about disability in the BIPOCBIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. community; the only reason I know anything about that stuff is because I listen to those with lived experience.
Q: What’s something you learned while working in AccessCo that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: When I joined AccessCo, I had to become more educated on many different disabilities. Previously, my scope was just limited to autism advocacy, but now in this new role, I represent all different disabilities, both physical and mental. I am a lot more mindful about all types of accessibility.
Q: Accessibility Coalition won Most Promising New Student Organization at this years’ Pitchfork Awards. Can you tell us about the impact of receiving that honor?
A: For me, the Pitchfork Award means that ASU is starting to recognize their disabled population on campus. Disabled people are statistically less likely to graduate college and less likely to be hired, so it’s important that we are acknowledged, encouraged and given the tools to succeed. We all work so hard in this coalition, so it feels nice that we are being seen. Part of being seen is showing incoming disabled students that there is a community with similar experiences as them. As an autistic woman, I went so long not knowing any other autistic people in traditional public school. I was not out as autistic and felt like I had to mask to fit in. I don’t want any other incoming disabled students to feel like they have to hide.
I mentioned this in our thank you speech, but again, it’s important to recognize the Disrupting Disability lab, all of our member organizations, the Council of Coalitions and Alicia Wackerly-Painter, who is our adviser.
Q: How can students get involved with Accessibility Coalition?
A: Follow us on social media! We will be posting about our upcoming meetings for the fall semester. Also, join our Discord server. We’re also looking for new interns and e-board members.
Q: What are other ways that people can take action for change in the community?
A: Please alert us on any inaccessibility you see on campus; we can notify SAILS (Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services) directly and work to get the issue solved. We also want to help any individuals facing ableism on campus, so please contact us and we can try to help.
Q: What advice do you have for ASU students with disabilities?
A: You don’t just deserve accessibility for basic needs. You deserve to thrive just like any other college student. Your disability is not something to be ashamed of, but at the same time, you are more than your disability. Find other disabled people to look up to. Don’t let anyone treat you badly and never be afraid to walk away from a person or organization that doesn’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated. Also, sign up for SAILS; you may be eligible for accommodations.
Accessibility barriers should not be the reason that you don’t graduate. We need more disabled people in positions of power, so getting that degree matters.
Another point I want to touch on is internalized ableism. If you aren’t comfortable with your disability, that’s perfectly valid, but it’s also important to ask yourself why you feel that way. Disabled people need to be kind to themselves. Self-love will get you very far and help you learn to advocate for yourself. Everyone experiences their disability differently, so I’m only speaking for myself here. I identify as autistic, not a person with autism. I see my autism as a part of who I am; it’s inseparable, it can’t be cured.
I faced a lot of internalized ableism because of how others made me feel, so I took it out on myself. Getting over that and learning to be kind to myself, to say, “Hey, this environment is overstimulating, I think it’s time to go home," or “Hey, I’m having a hard time focusing, I think I’ll take a break,” or “I’m having a hard time doing this because of my autism, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me,” or “This person isn’t treating me the way I deserve to be treated, so I’m going to distance myself from that person.” Self-advocacy is the first step.
Q: You mentioned you’ll be graduating in fall 2022, what does the future hold? What are some of your long-term professional goals?
A: My long-term goal is to bring representation to disability and autism disability. It isn’t going to be easy. Honestly, there is a lot of ableism in academic policies that needs to be sorted out, because I’ve felt like I’ve had to fight to get as far as I have — of course, I also had allies who helped.
I also love writing; I consider it a special interest of mine, so I would love to write for a publication about disability, or even a small newsroom. I enjoy writing about disability, but I also enjoy writing about other things too. Plus, I’m good at it. I may not fit the mold of a “typical” journalist, but I don’t believe in objectivity, so I will speak out when I see something that I think is unjust. Overall, I’m going to find something that works for me and my future.
To learn more about AccessCo, visit https://linktr.ee/accessibilitycoalition.