LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 28, 2023) — March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Created in 1987, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the month of March as a time to “increase public awareness of the needs and potential of Americans with developmental disabilities.”
While awareness remains a basic tenet of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, much has changed since 1987. The association’s focus has shifted the conversation to the importance of inclusion and accessibility.
The University of Kentucky stands at the forefront of this movement to make sure that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have access to resources here on campus, throughout the Commonwealth, and more broadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four, or 26% of adults in the United States has a disability. In Kentucky, that number is even higher.
As we mark Developmental Disability Awareness Month, it is an optimal time to reaffirm and amplify our commitment to providing exceptional support for members of this community.
Through acceptance, celebration and inclusion of individuals with disabilities, the university believes that our campus community becomes richer. In honoring that belief, this year the Office for Institutional Diversity has created the Employee Affinity Group (EAG) on Disability.
"Our EAGs are one of the cornerstones of our institutional pillars of 'Bringing Together Many People; One Community,'" Jason Brooks, executive director for institutional engagement, said. "Our disability affinity groups strengthens the universities commitment to inclusive communities and embodies the presence of what’s 'wildly possible.'”
Led by group leads Kathy Sheppard-Jones, executive director of the Human Development Institute (HDI) and faculty in the Counselor Education program in the College of Education; Nicholas Wright, HDI’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Robyn Brown, associate professor of sociology and director of the Health, Society and Populations Program; and Phillip Rumrill, director of research and training for HDI, the Affinity Group welcomes all employees who wish to promote a more inclusive and accessible campus community, but especially those with disabilities.
Mieccia Samuels, HR business partner, will serve as staff co-chair. Amanda Lannan, assistant professor in the department of Early Childhood, Special Education and Counselor Education, will serve as secretary.
"The mission of the EAG on Disability is to provide opportunities to share information, network, create research partnerships and address inequities and barriers associated with disability in support of an inclusive university community,” said Wright. “Achieving this mission is central to the university’s efforts to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”
To learn more about this new affinity group, how they got started in this work and disability awareness on campus, UKNow sat down with the group leads.
UKNow: Why was it important that this campus have an Employee Affinity Group on Disability? What would you say is the goal of the affinity group?
Sheppard-Jones: Roughly one in three people in Kentucky have a disability. Disability is a part of life. There are people with disabilities who are employed at UK across all levels and sectors. The disability Employee Affinity Group is a conduit that can bring people together — to learn, to grow and to be a resource for each other.
UKNow: How did you get involved in this important work? Where does your passion stem from?
Sheppard-Jones: I work at UK’s Human Development Institute. We work to build inclusive communities. That includes our own university community. I am fortunate to get to do this work in a place that means a great deal to me. The university plays such a pivotal role in preparing students for future careers and as a major employer in Kentucky. There’s no better environment to model what an inclusive workforce looks like, and how to show what belonging looks like. My passion comes from the knowledge that our best work is done together, with varying perspectives, experiences and skills. I want the youngest of Kentuckians to aspire to be whomever they want to be, without the stigma that too often comes with a disability label.
Wright: I cannot speak for everyone on the leadership team, but my passion stems from my personal identity and philosophy in student affairs. I experienced a traumatic brain injury in the second year of my undergraduate experience and the support I received, as well as the challenges I experienced, shaped my identity development. I am an individual with a disability and this identity influences my experiences, life perspective, and my student affairs philosophy, which focuses on creating a more accessible and inclusive space throughout higher education.
UKNow: March is Developmental Disability Awareness Month. What is the purpose of this month and why do you believe it should be celebrated?
Brown: This time of celebration is necessary, and it matters because it's an opportunity to spotlight and honor the accomplishments of people with disabilities throughout U.S. history. For example, a famous Kentuckian who immediately comes to mind is Muhammad Ali. His contributions to the civil rights movement are an important part of his legacy, as is the work he did to raise public awareness and support research on Parkinson's disease. There's an unfortunate tendency to frame Ali's experience of Parkinson's as a personal tragedy instead of recognizing that he committed most of his life — more than 30 years — to raising an estimated $100 million for Parkinson's research.
UKNow: How can we as a university support this community year-round?
Sheppard-Jones: We need to think about disability as a part of life. Disability isn’t an outcome. We need to recognize disability as one integral part of diversity. Recognizing that people with disabilities are researchers, scholars, staff and faculty assistants, and leaders and learners. It doesn’t need to be inspirational, but we can all aspire to be inclusive in our work. Take advantage of campus events to learn about disability.
Brown: All people with disabilities should be able to openly discuss their disability and embrace this aspect of identity. But we know this isn't the reality for many people with disabilities in the workplace. One way to support people with disabilities is to include disability in DEI efforts. This is something my home college of A&S (Arts and Sciences) is doing well, and I think it's a great way to provide sustained support.
UKNow: What are some resources on campus made specifically for some with disabilities?
Sheppard-Jones: You might not know that UK hosts the Center for Assistive Technology Services (CATS). CATS provides a free lending library of assistive technology devices for Kentuckians with disabilities. Some are available to keep. This is a powerful resource to know about, and CATS is a rich environment for research and training opportunities for UK students, too. Of course, the Disability Resource Center is a go to resource for UK students. The Human Development Institute also has disability resources, trainings and expertise that can be helpful to researchers, students and communities. To learn about resources in Kentucky, visit the Kentucky Disability Resource Guide at https://resources.hdiuky.org/. This searchable guide includes information on assistive technology, community living, education, employment, finances, health, mental health, transportation and more.
There are currently seven EAGs on campus: The African American, African, Native Indigenous Affinity Group; Hispanic/Latinx Affinity Group; LGBTQIA+ Affinity Group; Muslim Affinity Group; Asian/Asian American Affinity Group; Disabilities Affinity Group; and the Veterans Affinity Group. The objective of each is to build and create a sense of community, advocate for and support the recruitment, retention and advancement of faculty and staff; advocate for and support the recruitment, retention and graduation of students; and network and collaborate. To learn more about their efforts, or to get involved, click here.
As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.
In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.