Julie A. McGinnity

15 Charles Plaza, Apt. 1203, Baltimore, MD 21201 ● (314) 610-7740

Before I stepped on stage to sing, I was excited to perform at the Columbia Celebrates Diversity Breakfast. I loved the new home I had found at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, and despite the early hour, I looked forward to meeting leaders in the community and sharing my talent with everyone. At the time, I studied vocal performance as a master's Student, so I believed singing the National Anthem would be easy and seamless.

I waited through the opening remarks off stage with Sarah, the woman from the planning committee who had oriented me to the stage area during the rehearsal. The night before at the casual run-through held by the committee, I had instructed Sarah politely: "Please don't grab me or my white cane. I would like to follow you up to where the microphone is, and then I will be fine. I'll meet you off stage when I'm done." She seemed agreeable then, but a moment later, I realized she did not listen to my requests for bodily autonomy. As I moved across the stage to take my place to sing, Sarah took my upper right arm and steered me towards the microphone. Reflexively, I pulled out of her grasp, and my pulse quickened a bit as it always does when someone grabs ahold of me without warning. As I neared the microphone, Sarah took my long white cane, as though I was a video game character she wanted to control with a joystick. When I felt the pressure on my cane, I stopped immediately and turned to her. Before I could convey my extreme discomfort, she indicated that I was at the microphone, and I gave up with a sigh. I had to focus and get through the performance.

As I made my way through the National Anthem, I attempted to block the trip on stage from my memory. I needed to stay calm. Forgetting the words to the National Anthem stands as one of the greatest fears of professional singers everywhere. But as I sang, Sarah hovered at my right shoulder, lingering like a parent waiting to cross the street with an unruly child in toe. Finally, I finished, rushing off stage before Sarah could catch me. Although I tried to enjoy the breakfast after I sang, I felt small and ashamed. The committee did not feature another disability-related item on the program, so I knew my performance was the example. I wondered if the flaws in that example would ever become apparent to the members of the audience and if they and the members of the planning committee would admit that they still have a lot to learn until they could really claim they celebrate disability as diversity.

Over the next seven years, I have attempted to raise my voice and educate when disability was left out or disrespected in diversity and inclusion efforts. Two years later, I was asked to sing at the same diversity breakfast, and I clearly explained to a different set of committee members what had happened last time and how I would like to be treated respectfully as a blind person. They were receptive, and I had a positive experience singing in 2016. At a community meeting in 2018, I spoke up and asked how a housing organization that worked with underprivileged individuals in diverse populations would serve people with disabilities, and I was met with silence. Most recently, I took part in my university's implicit bias training during our 1L orientation week. Although the training included a few mentions of disability, the PowerPoints were full of images my screen reader could not read, and I was not provided with the files ahead of time so that I could convert them into an accessible format and follow them during the presentation. I raised this issue on chat over Zoom, where hundreds of my future classmates could see. Many of them joined in my call for greater accessibility of the training, and when the presenter failed to heed my request and describe the images on screen, they provided the necessary descriptions over chat. I was grateful for their support and intervention, but I wondered how an implicit bias training could be so explicitly inaccessible to a blind participant.

I chose to pursue a law degree so I could advocate for children and others who cannot speak for themselves. Before I started at the American University Washington College of Law, I worked at the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy and civil rights organization led by the blind. I met numerous children whose schools overlooked them rather than giving them the tools they needed to succeed. Likewise, I assisted a number of adults and seniors who had recently lost their eyesight and needed mentors to help them acquire skills for living as blind people and advocating for themselves in their communities. In my work, I met so many blind and disabled people of all ages who were excluded from some of the most basic experiences of life: reading, employment, and even parenting children, all because someone in power would not raise their expectations of people with disabilities and do their research.

Diversity and inclusion is a process, not a product. We can celebrate diversity like the city of Columbia, Missouri, with breakfasts and events, but the true progress occurs when we embrace diversity by learning inclusion. I have been in positions to educate employers, professors, and university administrations on disability inclusion firsthand, and the process works for me when those in power listen with an open mind and respect me as a colleague or student. As I finish my second semester of law school, I continue to speak out against accessibility barriers at my university and dispel misconceptions about people with disabilities in class.