Broadening Perspectives on Disability and Accessibility

Story by Leslie King

In a year when Durham Academy had a renewed focus on inclusion, one conversation took place that had been long overdue — a dialogue about disability and accessibility on DA’s campus.

“I do think it’s helpful to think about this as a lesson, perhaps even a history lesson,” Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity and Engagement Jeff Boyd said in an introductory video sent to Upper School students and faculty. “That knowledge of the past informs our understanding of the present, but also influences decisions we make about the future. Ultimately, the intersection of culture and physical spaces can be a catalyst for change.”

Students’ eye-opening journey began with Boyd’s introduction of The Accessible Icon Project, an ongoing movement centered around introducing a new graphic icon to replace the International Symbol of Access — the blue wheelchair symbol created in 1968 and used to designate bathrooms, ramps, automatic doors and parking spaces for people with disabilities.

The Accessible Icon, created in 2010 by artist and design researcher Sara Hendren and philosophy professor Brian Glenney, was the result of a collaboration between people with disabilities and their allies to move from a passive, motionless person in a wheelchair to a dynamic one indicating motion, freedom and influencing how people with disabilities are viewed. Through design activism and a street art campaign, they reimagined a long-standing logo to promote awareness about accessibility and prompt systemic change.

To help them understand the movement’s importance and real-world implications, Boyd arranged for Upper School students and teachers to meet disability rights advocate and competitive athlete Max Woodbury — a North Carolina native who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, twin sons, daughter and service dog Cobalt.

Woodbury was 24 and working as a field geologist on an environmental cleanup site when he suffered a spinal cord injury in an accident that left him a quadriplegic. He was interviewed by senior Sam Datin in a video shared with the Upper School as part of a virtual assembly and hosted a Microsoft Teams call later in the day to answer questions from Upper School students and teachers. Woodbury pointed out that while The Accessible Icon is an important improvement, there are limitations in using one symbol to represent a group of people with such wide variations in ability.

“Even though I’m sitting down, I don’t feel like my life is sedentary and I don’t feel like I’m a sedentary person,” he explained. “I’m an active person. So I do think it’s great that people — when they think of someone that uses a wheelchair — it isn’t just always sedentary, it isn’t always sitting around and being passive. … As far as the logo is concerned, the problem is it doesn’t include everybody. I have friends that use power chairs that can’t be active because their arms don’t have enough function. … So it’s interesting to think about wanting to push people’s preconceived notions about disabled people or wheelchair users, but I also want everyone to be more aware and more inclusive. There’s never going to be the ‘right’ symbol, but I think the awareness is the biggest thing.”

Woodbury, who earned a B.S. in geology and environmental sciences from UNC-Chapel Hill and works as a Geographic Information Systems specialist planning trails and natural areas across the Portland metropolitan area, is also an avid wheelchair rugby player with the Portland Pounders. It’s a connection he made when several members of the team came to visit him after his accident. Woodbury went to watch a practice, where he saw players ramming into each other, and the competitive athlete in him was immediately hooked.

“I said, oh my God! What is this? I want to do it!” he recalled. “That was life-changing for me and my family. To be able to see people who had been through similar situations and had lives, had jobs, had wives, had kids, had a fulfilling life — it was really great to meet somebody who was living their dream even though they had a spinal cord injury.”

Less than six months after his injury, teammates were picking Woodbury up to go to practice, and 24 years later, he’s still playing with this unique brotherhood he considers an extended family. “I’m the old guy now. I’m the guy who has a family and a job and kids and all these things. And hopefully I can set some sort of example for these young kids to know that all those things are possible.”

“Max’s outlook on life was incredibly inspiring,” reflected Upper School diversity coordinator and history teacher Kelly Teagarden. “Despite his life not following the original plan he envisioned, he has remained true to who he is. …    I had not thought about the fact that Max’s family could love him and support him endlessly, but they would never know, or fully understand, what his lived experience is like. The men on his rugby team fill this void in a way that no
one else could.”

During the conversation, he also helped students and faculty understand some of the challenges that he experiences in daily life — from well-intentioned but inappropriate attempts at empathy, to transportation and accommodations, to logistical difficulties that might affect his ability to travel.

“Thinking about universal design, I feel like it shouldn’t be a unique idea to make and design things that are available and include everybody” Woodbury said. “I’m a big fan of trying to be inclusive and forward-thinking.”

“Speaking with friends who've had to spend weeks on crutches, scooters and heavy boots, our campus is difficult to traverse with its many sets of stairs and heavy doors,” said senior Daniel Park, who attended the virtual assembly. “Disabilities come in all kinds of varieties, but being more conscious about our physical spaces is an important lesson. Having accessible spaces elevates our inclusivity, reminding us that our spaces exist not only for the able-bodied but for everybody.”

Upper School physics teacher Leyf Starling ’99 incorporates universal design principles and accessibility challenges regularly in her robotics and engineering classes. This fall, she’s hoping to have students take a new look at DA’s campuses through Woodbury’s eyes, and examine what it means to have an accessible and inclusive campus in terms of both physical structures and implementation of curricula.

“I do feel like the younger generation is a lot more aware about disability and diversity than I was growing up,” Woodbury said. “So it’s beautiful to have my kids come home from school and teach me about diversity and equity and inclusion. It’s important for all of us to keep learning and be aware because we can all do better and we can all be better. I’m continuing to learn all the time.”

“As a community that is rarely exposed to those with disabilities, it makes the few opportunities for exposure that much more poignant and significant,” reflected Park, who is also a member of RAISE (Raising Awareness for Inclusion and Social Equity), a committee of Upper School Student Government. “Events like the yearly Special Olympics and interviews with people like Max Woodbury expand our understanding of people who don’t live the kinds of lives that we do. However, although the times when we can work with students with disabilities are few, those moments are often the most memorable moments in a Durham Academy student’s career. I can still recall working with my first Special Olympics athlete in ninth grade, and I can tell you that just like me, most DA students still hold on to Polaroids of their Special Olympics athlete as they treasure that memory. That’s what I value the most about Durham Academy, its ability to give me these kinds of experiences and work with people from all kinds
of backgrounds.”