Organize a Disability Awareness Event on Your Campus

Noah Seidel, '05 DO-IT Scholar and UW Student, and Brittany Otter, Western Washington Student

When you plan a disability event on a college or high school campus many factors need to be considered. Below is a guide that can be used to implement a successful disability awareness event.

The Topic: Most people on campus aren't used to talking about disability because they don't have a disability, are not taught disability history in school, and are uncomfortable about their level of knowledge. Find a way for people to understand disability by relating it to something that they already know about and deal with in everyday life (e.g., transportation). Be aware of how the topic is being portrayed; you want the participants to leave with awareness and knowledge, not pity or sympathy.

The Experience: Many people want to learn, but not be lectured to. Awareness happens from direct experience more so than a lecture or workshop. Think about incorporating essay contests, simulations, games, wheelchair races, theater productions, concerts, or arts and crafts in your event. The experience is what will make people aware, not the information.

The Information: If the level of expected starting knowledge is set too high, it will make an awareness event unattractive. "Disability 101" events instead of "Ableism in America" might attract more people who don't know a whole lot about disabilities.

The Take-Away: Making someone aware of disability-related issues can sometimes invite people to take away messages that are not the intent of the event. For example, when holding wheelchair races or simulations, we require that participants fill out a survey so that they have time to reflect on their experiences. Be aware of the language that you use and your goals for the event. If your goals and take-away messages are drastically different, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.

9 Steps to a Successful Campus Disability Event

  1. Determine the attitude and the needs of the audience.
    1. Who is your target audience? People with disabilities? People without disabilities? Both? GLBT people with disabilities? People of color with disabilities?
    2. What is the general attitude or awareness level of the campus? Is there a disability studies minor or major? Are classes being taught about disability history? Is there a club or student office about disabilities?
    3. What are the needs of the campus? Does there need to be a "disability 101" event first to get people aware of what a disability is, or can you jump into "Disabilities in the Media" and other more complex topics? Is there a need for community building? Is a third party better suited to facilitate this event or should students facilitate?
  2. Gather a dream team with various perspectives.
    1. Brainstorm all of the possible community non-profits, leaders, activists, student-leaders, clubs, student officers, alumni, professors, faculty, and staff that might even think to help. Don't leave anyone out.
    2. Contact these folks with enough information as possible, including some possible dates and ideas.
    3. Once you hear back from those who are willing to help, assign tasks relevant to each person's strengths or when utilizing a faculty member, think of creative ways in which they can become involved.

      For example, when putting on the Third Annual Disability Awareness Week at WWU, the director of the University Residences donated coffee coupons to our events. We used them to encourage people to participate in workshops or as prizes for the wheelchair races. The cafes got publicity and we got people to show up.

  3. Conduct a risk assessment and evaluation of previous events (if possible).
    1. Even if you have never done an event before, assessing the risks is important. If you don't set up backup plans or preventative measures for your event, you can end up with unhappy audience.
    2. If you have done previous events, evaluate them for both the good and bad qualities. Make sure to revise the mistakes made in the past, but don't forget to implement the great things that have happened already. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

      For example, we used bookmarks instead of fliers to advertise our events. Bookmarks are smaller and reusable, so we didn't feel like we were wasting paper because everyone at school used them in their textbooks. Stick with what works and change what doesn't.

  4. Gather the experts to create an action plan.
    1. This might sound a little boring, but a plan of action (POA) is important for keeping everyone on the same page. POAs outline the goals, needs, deadlines/timeline, costs, contacts, and more of your event. I suggest using Google documents so that people can update and share information online.
  5. Implement the plan with clear directions, deadlines, and expectations.
    1. Constant communication is key. Clubs, offices, faculty, and staff all have different strengths and information banks, so make sure that your expectations are reasonable and communicate clearly at all times.
  6. Publicize!
    1. Not everyone that knows about your event will attend. Promote your event in the campus square, on Facebook, at local businesses and bookstores, and in your networks through posters, fliers, announcements on the school radio station, t-shirts, games, etc.
  7. Accommodate and include.
    1. It might seem obvious that a disability-related event should be accessible and inclusive, but remember your audience and their needs listed in Step #1.
  8. Say thank you.
    1. Say thank you with a card, or be creative. I once received an email from the director of a department who said that the thank-you package "was the most interactive note I received this year—very creative and fun." Who knew a handmade card from leftover bookmarks, confetti from leftover fliers, and extra balloons could make someone feel so special!
  9. Evaluate.
    1. There is always room for improvement, but also make sure to give your team praise. Look at demographics, attendance, quality of facilitation, engagement of audience, how well you met the needs of the campus, and anything else you want to know. It is often helpful to draft an evaluation to have attendees fill out after an event so you can see real data on how you did.