Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Launches New Disability Cultural Center on Campus

Georgetown is the first Catholic, Jesuit university to create a disability cultural center — a rarity among colleges and universities nationwide.

The center, which grew from Georgetown’s Disability Cultural Initiative, will be located in a newly renovated space on the ground floor of New South, a residential building on Georgetown’s main campus. In addition to meeting and gathering space, the center will feature a sensory room — the first university in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area to do so — that will provide sensory tools and support for students when they are overstimulated. The spaces are anticipated to open in November.

“The Disability Cultural Center provides a home to celebrate disability pride, community and culture and generate awareness about how we can create a culture of access inside and outside of the classroom across campus,” said Amy Kenny, director of the Disability Cultural Center. “It recognizes the wonderful disability community that we have here, and this is only the beginning.”

Creating a Welcoming, Inclusive Space

A group of staff and faculty members pose outside Georgetown at a graduation ceremony for students with disabilities.
(From left to right) Lydia X.Z. Brown (C’15), who initially proposed the center as an undergraduate, Director Amy Kenny, and Tiffany Yu (B’10), who helped establish the Disability Empowerment Endowed Fund.

Georgetown’s Disability Cultural Center will offer flexible spaces that undergraduate and graduate students can use to connect and for club meetings, programming and events. It will be located in close proximity to other student-focused centers, such as the Women’s Center, the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access, and the LGBTQ Center, a move to encourage more collaboration and intersectional approaches to serving students and their identities. The new space for all the centers, which are housed under the Office of Student Equity & Inclusion, is anticipated to open in November. 

The Disability Cultural Center’s space was designed to be as functional, inclusive and accessible as possible, Kenny says, and in consultation with students. The paint colors were chosen to contrast a variety of skin tones interpreting ASL. The space’s angles and mobility were assessed to ensure accessibility. Sensory tools were selected for the sensory room to support students when they’re overstimulated.

The sensory room helps meet the sensory access needs of our students, but it also makes a statement that our disabled students are welcome here,” Kenny said. “We want our disabled students to be a part of this community, we want you to thrive here and to find a sense of belonging. We want you to call this home.”

Zach Lee (C’25), a Georgetown student, wears a suit and tie and smiles at the camera.
Zach Lee (C’25) is a disability studies minor and the treasurer of the student group, the Georgetown Disability Alliance.

Zach Lee (C’25), a disability studies minor who serves on the board of the Georgetown Disability Alliance, worked with Kenny on the new space. He personally hopes to use the center as a place to connect and decompress — and hopes non-disabled students can learn more about disability culture and about this “community that may be visible or invisible to them,” as he did in his first year at Georgetown.

“Having that physical space where people can feel safe to commune, relax and express themselves however they want can show the disability culture that not many people are aware of,” Lee said. “I think the more we can get the word out, the more that culture will be able to shine on campus.”

Creating Space To Celebrate Disability Culture

In addition to a physical center, the Disability Culture Center helps students access resources and mentorship, promotes disability empowerment, culture and access through events and programming, and creates a space for students to find fellowship and support in navigating campus with disabilities.

The center, Kenny says, is a space for students to find a home and community on campus. And it’s a space that was driven by students’ advocacy over the years.

A group of Georgetown students with President John J. DeGioia at the inaugural DisCo Graduation, which celebrated the disability community and the graduating Class of 2023.
(From left to right) Dominic DeRamo, Gwyneth Murphy and Nesreen Shahrour with President John J. DeGioia at the inaugural DisCo Graduation, which celebrated the disability community and the graduating Class of 2023.

Gwyneth Murphy (SFS’23, MSFS’24), who was one of those students, experienced firsthand the challenges disabled students face in navigating higher education as a newly independent adult – and how vital a cultural space and community support is to earning that degree.

“I feel pure joy for future Hoyas with disabilities who will have much deeper community integration and cultural pride over their identities, which is a change that will deeply and directly serve them in their pursuit of higher education,” she said.

Libbie Rifkin, the founding director of the Program in Disability Studies, said the center’s creation marks a shift in the way disability is perceived.

“Disability is a dimension of human diversity worthy of celebration,” she said. “The idea of a cultural hub makes sense as it does for members of other communities.”

In collaboration with students, faculty, staff and alumni, Georgetown created the Disability Cultural Initiative in 2022 and hired Kenny as its inaugural associate director to lay the groundwork for a center.

Creating a Culture of Access

A group of Georgetown students who graduated in 2023 celebrate DisCo Grad, which honored graduating students in the disability community.
The inaugural DisCo grad that celebrated the disability community and the Class of 2023.

In the past year, the DCI has created events, programming and other advancements to further a culture of access, empowerment and inclusion on campus.

Last spring, the DCI hosted its first arts showcase celebrating disabilities and the arts and held an inaugural graduation ceremony, DisCo Grad, in May to recognize the disability community and the Class of 2023.

Employees also launched a Disability Employee Resource Group to cultivate a community support system and offer professional development and resources for disabled employees, and the university created an accessibility website. In collaboration with colleagues across the university, DCI has also created automated Zoom captions, accessibility features on a campus map and a method to navigate elevator outages.

This fall, the center will be hosting and collaborating on events with partners across campus, because, as Kenny says, “our disabled students are in every corner of campus.”

For the first time this year, the Cawley Career Fair will offer a quiet room for students with stimulation tools and provide resources about disability and employment there. In October, as part of Disability Cultural Month, the center will invite students to beta test its new accessibility features on Georgetown’s campus map, host its annual arts showcase, and offer other events ranging from a chaplain’s tea to a Neurodivergent Culture Club.

In addition to the launch of the center, the Office of Student Equity & Inclusion is growing. Kenny has been promoted from associate director to director, as has Annie Selak, previously associate director of the Women’s Center. The LGBTQ Center will be launching a national search for a new director to provide more resources and support for the LGBTQ center, which is currently led by Associate Director Riley Jelenick.

OSEI will also be launching a new Intersectionality Series, in partnership with Georgetown’s athletics department, to create an ongoing dialogue about intersectionality by amplifying artists, scholars, practitioners and activities on campus.

“The launch of the Disability Cultural Center reflects its importance on our campus and our commitment to the Jesuit value of cura personalis, serving the whole person,” says Eleanor J.B. Daughtery, vice president for student affairs. “We are excited to deepen our support of disability culture and create an inclusive space for connection, community and celebration.”

Looking Forward

A group of students stand outside the clocktower of Healy Hall.
The center’s student team members include (from left to right) Kat Bouker (C’24), Aamna Asim (GU-Q’25), Tara Haas (H’25) and Chloe Smith (N’26).

Chloe Smith (N’26), a sophomore in the School of Nursing, is one of the DCC’s student workers.

She was drawn to working with the DCC to help shape the future of the center for students, and said the work has already taught her to look at disabilities in a new light.

“The DCI has taught me to be mindful that sometimes a disability is not visible — and I think I particularly identify with that,” she said. “There are barriers and challenges when you are disabled, and you have to be creative and make an effort to participate in everything that everyone else can do. I think that [creativity] isn’t celebrated enough.”

Smith said she plans to use the sensory room once the DCC’s physical space is open. She also hopes to help educate students in the School of Health and School of Nursing about the ways disability culture intersects with healthcare – a connection she’s already seen in her academic studies. 

“The Disability Center can serve as a place for people to rest, come as they are, celebrate disability culture and be themselves.”

Chloe Smith (N’26)

“We talk a lot about cura personalis in nursing and [caring for] well-being, mental health, physical health, spiritual health, etc.,” she said. “That’s also important in the Disability Cultural Center, because with cura personalis, you’re caring for the person as a whole and you don’t need to change anything about them. They’re simply themselves.

The Disability Center can serve as a place for people to rest, come as they are, celebrate disability culture and be themselves.”