“When you first walk onto campus, or you’re first touring campus, you see Janss steps and that’s THE place, that is THE picture, you’re kind of honoring, or idolizing, the literal inaccessibility of UCLA“
UCLA Radio’s new project Campus Stories focuses on highlighting and humanizing underrepresented students here on campus. We hope to open a welcoming space for dialogue on the issues that currently affect their everyday lives and the causes they believe in. Our first interview is with Quinn O’Connor. Quinn is a fourth year Theater major studying Stage Management and Producing with a Disability Studies minor. They are the executive director for Act III Theatre Ensemble, a student-run theatre company with a mission to uplift queer artists. They are an advocate for disability rights and have worked extensively with the Disabled Student Union (DSU) at UCLA as well as with theater companies in the greater LA area to make these spaces more accessible.
[please note that the following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity]
So Quinn, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hello, my name is Quinn O’Connor, I use she/they pronouns and I am a fourth year Theater major with a Disability Studies minor. I am from Southern California originally and I go to UCLA and I am going to be graduating. I have been involved with Act III Theatre Ensemble since I was a sophomore at UCLA and I co-founded the Disabled Student Union in March of 2020 with some other disabled students on campus.
Do you have a position within DSU?
DSU operates as more of a collective space, so I would say I am one of the cofounders, but there’s not really a hierarchy. The way that we operate as a collective allows people who have more energy at times to step up and do the activist work that needs to be done whereas other people may use that time to take a step back. This system has been incredibly effective for us so far. I think when you advocate for communities, and especially if you’re a part of that said community, it drains you emotionally, and it can become tiring work at times, so I think that having that collective space and not having any specified roles actually aids us in sustaining that activism, because we can step up and support each other at times.
How have your personal identities and/or experiences affected your time at UCLA?
When I came onto UCLA’s campus at first, as a disabled person I didn’t feel seen whatsoever. But as a queer person, and my queer identities, when you walk in Bruin Plaza on the way to Bruin Walk, you see the big rainbow flag and the LGBT Center, which is a very visible reminder that the UCLA campus supports you as queer person for the most part and has those resources available and has specific programming. Despite my never having been involved with the LGBT Center, I know that if I needed that support, or if I needed that community, it was there for me.
However, as a disabled person, as a freshman, the first disabled person I met on campus I didn’t really meet and befriend until I was a sophomore. It was incredibly alienating and isolating for those first two years. At that point in my life, I will still dealing with my disability as an identity even though I’ve been disabled all my life, and I’ve been diagnosed since I was 2. It has been a part of my life for so long, but I think through the structures that we live in, disabled people are taught to view their disability as a medical condition and not necessarily an identity when they are diagnosed. So I was never really in tune with my disability as an identity, or as a part of who I am when I was a freshman. That later changed when I learned about disability studies and met other disabled people, but at first, walking onto this campus, it was definitely an alienating feeling, and I’m sure that other disabled students in DSU have felt the same way when they came to UCLA because of the inaccessibility of the campus and of higher education in general.
Once I actually started meeting people and DSU started, it didn’t just help me, but the other members that are a part of DSU as well to really find that community for the first time in their lives. Like in high school and my childhood, I was the only disabled person in the room a lot of the time. But as UCLA is such a big campus, you are bound to meet someone that identifies kind of like you, so that was really refreshing to see. One of my big goals with the longevity of the Disabled Student Union after I graduate, is that eventually disabled students are as supported as the LGBT community on campus, so that disabled students don’t have to actively advocate for our identities and will just be able to be in community with each other. Because right now, that is not the reality of our situation here. We’re forced to advocate for ourselves and that is how we build community, but I’d like there to just be little cute programming clubs like the Queers and Cookies whatever event thing that the LGBT center does. That’s kind of the ultimate goal of DSU, and I think that our presence over the next couple years is really vital to solidify that.
In the same vein, how has it been trying to find that intersectional space of being disabled, being queer, being a person of color… that’s a lot of identities to find a space for on campus. How has that been for you the past couple of years, especially with DSU?
I know that DSU right now is pretty white, and I think that that speaks to a lot of the inequities in our healthcare system against people of color, as there is a lot of medical bias against people of color when it comes to their diagnosis. And when it comes to specific class and economic levels, it’s really hard to get a diagnosis even if you are disabled, unless you go to specific providers. I will say that DSU is pretty white right now and I hope that that changes, but that’s also just kind of an issue outside of my control, obviously, because of systemic racism in health care. Interestingly though, DSU is actually very queer and I’ve been able to find a lot of queer disabled people, and that’s been fun. There’s a lot of intersections, but I do think that when it comes to me, I know that my queerness affects my disability. Like dating life as a disabled person is different if you are straight or queer and things like that. And, also, as a person of color, as someone who is Asian, there are specific stereotypes when it comes to that. When it comes to familial structures, you need to live up to certain standards, at least in my Asian household. It’s definitely difficult when you as a disabled person can’t be as good as your sibling who is able-bodied and is on varsity. It’s interesting to see what different familial structures value and at least for me that’s how my intersectional identities deal with each other.
You’ve talked about this a little bit but I was wondering if you could speak more specifically on your experience with the accessibility of UCLA and how UCLA can improve on pre-existing structures.
I think that, again, when you first walk onto campus, or you’re first touring campus, you see Janss steps and that’s the place, that is the picture, you’re kind of honoring, or idolizing, the literal inaccessibility of UCLA if you want to look at it metaphorically. For instance, I didn’t know that there were other ways to get up to North Campus until the middle of my freshman year/the end of my freshman year, or how to get through the business school, where there’s an elevator now. It’s hard to navigate campus as a physically disabled person, for multiple reasons, like we all go up The Hill and go up multiple staircases. That’s obviously a big infrastructural thing when it comes to accessibility.
When it comes to more educational accessibility, there are a lot of hoops to jump through when it comes to getting accommodations. I think that also the accommodations office honestly asks for more medical documentation than is normal, and I think they’re trying to fix that. But it’s just kind of all these very backward things that are ingrained in our institution right now that really affect students. I’m really grateful that for the first in its history disabled students are bringing these to light. And I think that when it comes to our activism, administration is very taken aback, honestly by a lot of these things, because it has just been the norm. But in reality, they’ve always been shitty, it’s not like it’s just happened right now. It’s always been shitty, there just hasn’t been a community to specifically advocate for those yet.
So I would say that there’s just a lot of systemic barriers surrounding education. Technically the ADA was supposed to “fix everything”, but when it comes to the reality of the ADA, there wasn’t really ever any actual financial assistance given to businesses or given to institutions to actually make them accessible. Once the ADA was signed, the government kind of just left America to like “figure it out” or whatever. In that sense, UCLA is barely bare minimum accessible so they don’t get sued, and even then there are still some things that are very questionable and they could be sued for. I think that UCLA is so inaccessible because they’ve been operating on that baseline and they haven’t been held accountable for it, or don’t think that there is enough demand to actually do it and actually change it. But there is a really amazing California Community College program and system that kind of has this like pipeline to UCs and community colleges are much more accessible for disabled students at first, so I think that that has also caused, thankfully so, a huge influx of disabled students into the UC and CalState system, but the UC System and UCLA as a whole weren’t prepared for that and wasn’t prepared for like that influx of disabled students, so now in this present time, we are dealing with this sort of catch up situation. DSU at UCLA is not the only community in the UC system. There are so many UC-wide coalitions that are happening and at least two major ones and campus-specific coalitions as well that are forming, that have been forming, over the past three to four years. So I think that right now is a very pivotal time for the disabled community within the UC system. But yeah I think that the inaccessibility is really just due to the fact that the administration doesn’t believe that we are actually here and we actually need more assistance than just the bare minimum legalities of the ADA.
Specifically, how did you get involved with DSU?
At the end of my freshman year, I was already a Disability Studies minor, so I was on their mailing list and the Disability Studies minor happened to be looking for Committee on Disability appointments for the UCLA Committee on Disability. I decided to apply for it because I decided there was no reason not to, and it would be a good chance to meet other disabled people. The person who actually reached out was the former Events Manager for UCLA Radio, Lily Shaw, who had her own radio show a couple of years back, but she was the first person who was disabled that I befriended at UCLA. It all came through that outreach email. At this time, I started working within student government and within the Facilities Commission in USAC, where there was a specific project that Lily had started called Access On Board, and that’s where I met another disabled person… now we’re at three people. And me, Lily, and the other disabled student, Kyle, who graduated in 2021, had always talked about wanting to start a disabled student union. Lily had always wanted to do that, but she was always super busy with Radio, as well as being a council member so she never really got to it. However, by March of 2020, Kyle and I found another student, Natalee, who still attends UCLA, and who was in a disability studies class with us. The three of us sort of became the signatories of DSU back in March of 2020, with the goal of really trying to find and solidify a community of disabled students, because a lot of us had shared similar experience going at UCLA completely alone for a year or two, and not really being able to find that community. And I think that that was the most important thing for us and obviously, it has evolved into this huge activism powerhouse, but, again, I think that that was out of necessity, that was not our original goal. We really wanted to create that community, but actually, we kinda learned that the activism really did also grow that community as well, more than whatever random events we could have programmed because that’s what we originally were going to do. We founded DSU and held our first meeting over Zoom in September 2020, the beginning of the whole COVID year.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about DSU on campus that you would like to address?
I’d like to think the conceptions, that how we are perceived, is relatively positive. There have been some students who have said that “oh this is way too much, you’re being unreasonable” or whatever. I think that’s the same misconception that admin has: that disabled students because we’ve never asked for this before and now we’re asking for it, it seems unreasonable just because it hasn’t been the norm. Again, as I said before, there’s a reason why you haven’t heard from disabled students yet, it’s because we didn’t have this institutional community and organization before March of 2020. I’ve honestly been gaslit in enough administration meetings that sometimes I do think to myself, “wow are we really being unreasonable,” technically this is in line with the law, etc. In reality, I need to remind myself that what we’re advocating for is based on the personal, undeniable experiences of our community, and in order to make this goal attainable in higher education and at a university such as UCLA, we have to ask for what hasn’t been asked from the administration before. I think that that’s something we all need to remind ourselves with our activism. It doesn’t cost any money for institutions to have an EDI committee, it doesn’t cost a lot of money for an institution to talk about racism, it doesn’t cost a lot of money to do that. I’ve also seen this in the theater industry too. It doesn’t cost a lot of money for institutions to talk about things like race, gender, and sexuality. But when it comes to actually supporting the disabled community, it costs money to remedy access and inaccessibility, and I think that’s the biggest thing that holds UCLA and the UC System back from being more accessible, even though it is definitely the right thing to do. Overall I think the student body and student government, and the mother organization spaces have grown to respect us. I think that we have been able to raise general awareness about disability within the UCLA student community at the very least, just by being present and being outspoken and things like that. Social media has also been a blessing, as our posts have gotten pretty widespread throughout the UCLA community. Before being in disability studies programs, I had a lot of misconceptions about disability myself, and I think we all grow up with that. I think that it’s good for the whole UCLA community to learn about disability and learn about those topics in a non-medicalized sense for the first time in their lives. Because that’s what I felt and that’s what I experienced too.
So I know there was a recent DSU protest fighting for remote access, and I was wondering if you could expand a little bit about the recent DSU campaigns.
Yeah, so the topic of remote access has been something that the disabled community has asked for since before COVID, on obviously a much smaller scale. Before then, this happened throughout the world, with workplace accommodations or work-from-home accommodations, and the world said it wasn’t possible. When the majority of the world had to go remote, it suddenly became possible, and that sparked a lot of conversation within the larger disabled community about why only now is this suddenly possible. Luckily, it is now a lot more accessible because a lot of people know how to use Zoom technology and video conferencing software now.
When it comes to the specific campaign with DSU, coming into the winter quarter, I think there are only 200 classes that are offered online and a lot of those classes are grad student classes or language classes. These classes for the most part do not help with undergraduate majors or minors, which is a really big red flag, that UCLA just hasn’t really listened to the disabled community, with our petition that has got over 20,000 signatures on Change.org and our protest that had about 200 attendees overall. It’s pretty plain and simple, the biggest thing that we are advocating for is for the university to require professors to open up a Zoom room or have a hybrid class, which doesn’t cost any money. That’s basically the bare minimum: having a Zoom room with the captions on, is all we’re asking for. The bare-bones minimum. Universities have done this, it is possible. Last year, the University of Alabama, for instance, did hybrid learning. So they had some students come in person last year and just had a Zoom room projected onto the screen, or the wall, in a classroom. It’s not that hard. But I think UCLA is very bent on being a specifically in-person institution. “We are not an online school,” we don’t “blah blah blah.” I think there are a lot of misconceptions and a fear of change that is kind of pushing the admin back from this. Hybrid learning and remote access not only benefit disabled students, but it also benefits transfer students, it benefits parenting students, it benefits commuter students, and it benefits professors with immunocompromised families. During COVID, for instance, professors are not allowed to use the excuse of having immunocompromised family members that they have to go back to every day, as a reason to teach remotely… which is another huge issue that UCLA is not changing their stance on. Remote access, in the long run, is not just a COVID issue and it really would help a lot of different groups on campus have better access to education. For education as highly regarded as UCLA, remote access would make that type of education more accessible, and I think that the administration is very afraid of change. Recently, the Campus Retention Committee, which is made up of a lot of other organizations, released a really well-written letter concerning remote access and things like that. I’m really happy to see that we’re getting more support from other campus communities, and I hope that that translates to UCLA administration a bit more. We are currently in the works of coordinating a nationwide protest for remote access, I think right now we have about 16 other universities across the nation and we’ll be coordinating with them to do another protest in April, hopefully, for remote access. Because again this is not a UCLA-specific issue, it’s not just a COVID issue, we can have this protest literally next year and it would still be relevant. There’s a lot more urgency with it being a pandemic, but yeah. That’s basically that whole thing that we’re doing right now. I think that through this campaign we have gained a lot of traction and following from the community at UCLA. I think when it comes to us having to advocate and having to protest and having to exercise these things, it really does build more community throughout the disabled community than having a random movie screening, whatever have.
So, in the end, I am grateful that we have turned into more of an advocacy center situation and I’m glad that now there’s a fair amount of new freshmen that are members or new transfers that are in DSU that are joining this year. That makes me really happy, to see that we are reaching the newer UCLA members as well, and having that impact on them for the first time. And we tabled at the Activities Fair this year for the first time. And, you know, me as a freshman, I wish I would’ve been able to walk around the Activities Fair and see a DSU table, but it didn’t exist back then. So that was a really cool moment for me to kind of be that presence for new students walking around the Activities Fair and knowing that there was something there for them.
What is something you wish more people knew about DSU and the experiences of students with disabilities, especially with their able-bodied peers? Things that you wish people would consider, a lot of people would consider, able-bodied peers would consider?
I think that the biggest thing, and this is sort of what I’m trying to bring to the theater company that I run on campus, is that when it comes to students and especially student organizations, nobody really takes access into account. There are some organizations that are doing hybrid meetings right now, but for the most part student organizations don’t have any accessibility in their events. There’s also nothing in the institution, in UCLA, that is requiring students to make their events accessible. Something that I would love students to regard disability with, is something in the sense of, access should be the norm and not the exception. If one specific student is brave enough to come up to you and out themselves as somebody that is disabled and ask how they can be involved in a campus organization if they are disabled… UCLA as a whole should be a much more accommodating environment. When it comes to Act III, with our musical that is happening in the winter, I submitted a grant for funding to have interpretation and captioning available and have live captioners at all of the performances of that musical, because that’s something that can make that event accessible. Also, DSU worked with Bruin Bash, and with CEC, to have captioning. I think that that’s one of the biggest things when it comes to student life, that the more we normalize access and the more we institutionalize access, the more understanding and welcoming the whole UCLA community will be. We don’t have to have a million programs on disability or have events where people speak on disability and things like that. It really does just have to become integrated into our event planning.
I guess when it comes to specific language, I’ve still heard a lot of derogatory or outdated language concerning disability come from a lot of able-bodied students. Honestly, I recommend that able-bodied students try to take Disability Studies 101. It’s a writing II course, it’ll help y’all with your major, it’ll help you graduate. It does really teach the community about a lot of things about disability that you aren’t taught at all. For example, I never learned, and I don’t think any of us ever learned about the disability rights movement in high school in your American history class, or if you did it was a small footnote. I didn’t learn about that, I didn’t see media or even pictures of disabled people advocating or being activists until I was in a disability studies class. I think that having that representation is really important. I think that a lot of able-bodied people go through their adolescence and their adulthood regarding disability as the exception. And you know you see a disabled person, maybe, on-campus or whatever, and you’re just like “oh that’s a one in a million thing,” but in reality, in America, the number is one in four. About 25% of Americans are disabled and we’re one of the largest minority groups in America that doesn’t ever get regarded. We aren’t part of your EDI initiatives and we aren’t part of access. The Oscars weren’t accessible this year, and that was something that a disability rights activist, Jim LeBrecht pointed out a lot. We need to start thinking about access in all aspects of our life and not just when it comes to disabled people being loud about it. We shouldn’t have to advocate for the bare minimum. And that’s kind of where the community is at right now. So when it comes to the UCLA community and when it comes to Act III as an organization, I treat Act III as something where we create theater for what the theater industry should be and not necessarily what it is right now. Access is a big part of it for me. So that’s kind of what I intend to also reach out to the broader campus community and what the program and things like that. I know, for instance, I don’t think that any organization that Lily was a part of, she was also a part of ADPi… I don’t think ADPi made their events accessible before she joined and that shouldn’t be the norm. That’s the biggest thing I would like UCLA students to know: just make your events accessible. That’s it.
What is your favorite part of DSU since its creation and what do you like about the community you’ve created?
I like that I have been able to create a community for new students that I didn’t have when I first arrived at UCLA. I’m glad they will never have to experience that isolation that I did and a lot of the founding members did. I think that’s probably the thing I am most proud of in that sense. And it does hit me when after the protests, one of the new students in DSU said in our group chat “wow I feel so empowered,” and that is something that I never would have felt as a freshman because I knew 0 disabled people at that time. So I think that that is probably one of my favorite things– starting to see the impact that it has on other students and seeing what this could still become. For instance, I didn’t draft the Change.org petition whatsoever, I had nothing to do with that. That was a whole other student who did that and led that charge, so I think that it’s also really encouraging to see other students learn how to advocate for themselves. Especially with the bare bones of trying to get academic accommodations, that’s 18 or 20-year-olds who don’t really know how to do that. You never really learn how to fight tooth and nail for access to education and I think that DSU at the very least is a resource that the older students can use to teach newer students how best to deal with the office or best deal with that, and how to get the things that they need and get the things that they are legally entitled to. So at the very least that space for resource sharing and that community that has been built.
Thank you so much for creating this community and space, it’s definitely something I wish I had had my freshman year.
I’ve finally started to see that this year, the impact of DSU has really started to show, and I think that all year I’m going to continue to see that. I am so stunned and flabbergasted, for lack of a better term, about how needed this was, despite the fact it was just three of us who started it, and there may well be 10 people at our first meeting. I really think, hopefully, that it’ll exist after I graduate, at least for the next couple of years. I’m just excited for this year to progress, just to see that impact and see how important this community really is. When you’ve never experienced community before, you don’t really know anything else, but once you actually have that place you can feel safe, or heard, or at least know that the resources are there for you, it can be so powerful. And it’s very powerful for me. I have a physical disability, but because I’m a theater major I don’t really need accommodations every quarter, so I’m not really dealing with that every day, but knowing that I have those resources and the knowledge that I have a community there to support me is the best feeling.
We’d like to thank Quinn for taking the time to share their experiences as a disabled student and for giving us the opportunity to highlight DSU. We would also like to commend the impressive efforts of DSU on the UCLA campus, and to learn more about DSU, we encourage you to follow their instagram. DSU also holds bi-weekly meetings with the option to attend in person or remotely. Additionally, DSU has drafted a petition asking UCLA to offer remote learning options as well as creating a reading list to learn more about disability studies and activism.