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Students have recently formed three new disability-related organizations at Penn focused on representing and advocating for disabled students.

The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with representatives from each of these student groups to learn about their missions, club initiatives, and advocacy work. The student leaders said that they formed the groups in order to create space and support neurodivergent and disabled students at Penn.

Advocates for Neurodiversity

Formed this past month, Advocates for Neurodiversity is an organization that aims to create a community for neurodivergent students on campus.

College junior Ellie McKeown, an AND board member, said that the organization's founding was driven by a need for more inclusivity for neurodivergent students on campus. 

“We are starting this club because of a perceived lack of space for neurodivergent identities and from quite a few experiences of lack or failure within the system,” McKeown said. “[AND is] a welcoming space for neurodivergent individuals, although neurotypical people are also welcome to join.” 

McKeown said AND hopes to involve the Penn community in advocating for neurodivergent individuals through education and peer-to-peer meetings. The group is also excited about forming a relationship with the Disabled Coalition at Penn. 

“We wanted [AND] to basically be like an affinity space for neurodivergent people as well as work on things like advocacy in educational settings and advocacy in our personal lives,” McKeown explained. 

While AND represents neurodivergent students, the group also emphasizes that they are speaking from a general set of terms — not every neurodivergent person may share their ideas or experiences. 

“We believe that all neurodivergent people deserve a seat at the table and deserve equal respect just like any of their other peers, neurotypical or neurodivergent,” McKeown said. “Above all, we are just trying to create a space of respect and equality.” 

Disabled Coalition

The Disabled Coalition at Penn is an umbrella organization for disabilities officially created at the start of this semester. The coalition’s mission is to “create a safe space for the University of Pennsylvania’s disabled community to build authentic connections and support one another.” 

College sophomore Lex Gilbert is the founder and president of the Disabled Coalition. They said that seeing a lack of representation for disabled identities within student organizations was the driving factor in the creation of the Disabled Coalition. 

“We are focused on empowering students through education,” she said.

Dale Brokaw is a second-year Ph.D. student and the vice president of the Disabled Coalition. Brokaw spoke to the coalition's desire to form an intersectional community, spanning different years, schools, and identities. 

“What we’d really like is a large coalition across the entire University that will hopefully outlast us,” they said, adding that in the future, the organization hopes to host a Disability Pride Week.

Gilbert explained that the Coalition is working to make students aware of what accommodations are available to them and how to be self-advocates. He also said that the group hopes to work with faculty and professors on the topic of having disabled students in their classes.

Brokaw said that creating accessible and inclusive spaces for disabled students is not only equitable, but also beneficial for the community at large. 

“I often hear this tension described between giving [accommodations to] students with disabilities and fairness; that somehow, giving students with disabilities accommodations makes the space less fair for able-bodied students,” Brokaw said. “I’d really like to push back on that and affirm that creating an accessible, inclusive environment is not just equitable and the best thing to do for students with disabilities, [but] it makes the environment better for everybody.”

The Disabled Coalition also holds a seat on the University Council — which was previously held by Disability Advocacy at Penn. Gilbert said that the Coalition is also working with Disability Services, the Weingarten Center, and Wellness at Penn.

Invizibles at Penn

Founded last fall, the Invizibles at Penn is a student group that works to raise awareness for invisible illnesses and hidden disabilities. The organization's goals are to raise awareness, fundraise for research, and foster a community, according to its website.

The student group currently has around 40 members, according to College senior Rebecca Nadler, the president of the Invizibles at Penn. Nadler said that more individuals are living with chronic illness than many expect.

“According to the CDC, every 6 out of 10 adults in the US has at least one chronic condition, which I think is very infrequently discussed,” she said. “Starting that conversation and raising awareness and building community in that space [is our goal].”

In addition to advocacy work, Nadler added that the Invizibles at Penn is involved in the creation and centralization of more resources for students with invisible illnesses and hidden disabilities.