Simone Till hopes to inspire expanded accommodations for students with disabilities

Recognizing the inadequacies of current accessibility resources in promoting inclusion, senior social work major Simone Till has dedicated her time to advocating for disabled communities on campus. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

For senior social work major Simone Till, Disability Pride Month represents the culmination of countless struggles for inclusivity both within the disabled community and her personal life.

Till often struggled throughout her childhood with finding a sense of community among others at her school due to a progressive difficulty with hearing, although she was unaware of the cause at the time. It was not until the age of four that she was diagnosed with severe hearing loss, which she said required her to overcome developmental barriers posed by her late diagnosis.

“At first, my disability was very visible. I had a deaf accent, or speech impediment, which prevented me from being able to speak clearly. However, I was always very extroverted and communicative of my own needs, which helped me start to learn to advocate for myself,” she said.

“As I grow older, my condition has become much more invisible. Despite that and despite the way I was treated as a child, I still continue to face the same struggles, such as people that assume I’m misunderstanding them rather than acknowledging that I’m unable to hear or people that think I’m ignoring them.”

Researching on-campus accessibility resources during her freshman year inspired Till to begin advocating for change. She was initially hopeful USF offered accessibility resources comparable to the disability programs at other Florida colleges, such as the disability ambassadors and leadership organizations at UF and FSU.

However, she was shocked when she discovered this was not the case. Best Buddies — a volunteer-led organization intended to help autistic individuals with building social and professional relationships — and Student Accessibility Services (SAS) were the only two programs available for disabled students.

Recognizing that such spaces were specialized in nature, with Best Buddies providing a support system for those with autism and SAS serving as the minimum resource for accessibility protections, Till said she took broadening disability representation on campus as motivation rather than deterrence.

Beginning the organizing process was initially difficult due to the initial lack of communication between USF’s disabled communities, according to Till. When first sitting down to design a plan of action, she said she found it important to seek out the voices of students and faculty across the disability spectrum in an attempt to understand their individual struggles and needs.

“People may ask ‘Well, why is having separate resources for disabled students important?’” she said. “My response is always that there’s a lot of disability concerns that are hard to address unless you know where to go, and I realized this was a serious problem when first approaching organizing.

“While USF will be implementing a Presidential Accessibility Advisory Committee in the fall, my plan is to create a student-led accessibility committee in which students would have the opportunity to reach out to one another, learn about the experiences of those with different disabilities and share about the associated struggles that come with them.”

For example, it was not until a conversation she recently shared with a student that Till said she learned about the difficulties faced by visually impaired students with campus transportation. Despite the university previously promising to implement verbal announcements at BullRunner bus stops, she said many students with visual disabilities struggle to find their designated bus routes due to a lack of verbal indication of when the bus makes a stop.

Teaching postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Child and Family Studies Jillian Heilman said Till’s drive to spread awareness on disability pride and offer her own perspective on disability struggles has not only greatly assisted not Heilman’s own research, but the campus as a whole.

Given that her position often requires her to interact with children with disabilities, Heilman said Till’s insight serves as a useful and essential tool for bettering accessibility resources at USF.

“From the moment I met her, Simone has demonstrated an enthusiasm and drive to make a positive change for those on campus,” Heilman said.

“I met Simone this past year as she was looking for a faculty advisor that could support her goal of starting a disability honor society on campus, as USF is one of the only major universities in Florida that does not currently have a chapter of Delta Alpha Pi.”

Over the course of this spring semester, Heilman said she had plans to develop educational materials for students to learn more about disability awareness, but struggled with finding a resource that could appeal to a college audience. After hearing of Till’s initiatives through SAS, however, she said she knew she had to reach out to her for her insight, eventually leading to the pair recording a seven episode podcast planned to be released this upcoming fall.

Advocacy has always been a part of her identity because of her condition, but Till said alongside broadening resources on campus what continues to inspire her fight for expanding accessibility are her experiences with watching how society treated her older sister, who suffers from cerebral palsy, while growing up.

“Although we both had a disability, our childhood was intriguing due to the difference in the way in which we were treated. I was eventually able to communicate clearly, I always kept on school and I was always very extroverted, even if I struggled to express myself at times,” she said.

“However, my sister was the opposite and always very introverted. She didn’t have fine motor skills and she didn’t do well in school, which created a dynamic where my disability started to become invisible while hers became much more visible.”

For those within the disabled community, Till said having a month honoring disabilities represents both a source of empowerment and a call to action for greater society to become more accepting of change aimed toward expanding accessibility.

Proceeding into the future, she said while she is frustrated that change has not yet been made by larger institutions to implement necessary accommodations for disabled individuals, she is equally hopeful that people will come to understand disabilities as a source of strength and pride.

“I think a lot of people just associate disability pride with only the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which really served to raise the standards for accessibility and accommodation. However, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re still not there yet, we still don’t have fair employment and we still don’t have access to necessary services,” she said.

“Facilitating pride can be really helpful with helping people with disabilities not feel shame about their conditions and prevent them from internalizing things that are actually the fault of their environment. That’s what we’ve tried really hard to do at USF, and I’m hopeful people will be able to look at our work and become more understanding of where people are coming from and how they should be treated.”