Student News

With Day-in-the-Life Video, MSW Students Julia LiPuma and Michelle Fletcher Raise Awareness, Spur Advocacy for Disability Justice

Michelle, wearing jeans, white sneakers, and a black turtleneck, sits at a long metal table with an open laptop in front of her. She is wearing a black mask on her face and her strait brown hair hangs down to her shoulders. Julia, wearing black leggings, black shoes and an olive sweater sits to Michelle's left in a desk arm chair. She also has on a black mask and has long, straight brown hair that hangs below her shoulders. Julia is looking up at a large video screen on the wall behind Michelle. Against the black screen, the following text appears in a font color that transitions deep pink at the left hand side of the screen to yellow on the right “We must reframe “work” and access using a Disability Justice lens. The ADA pivots on an ableist construct of “work” and a capitalist structure. We must uncouple the provision of benefits and accommodation from one's ability to work. We must eradicate the notion of “accommodation”, which infers that the non-disabled majority is doing the disabled a series of favors, and instead discern the term “access” as a verb which provides for all.”  Below that is white text reading  “-Creating New Futures: Notes for Equitable Funding (2021)”

As interns in NYU Silver’s Office of Global and Lifelong Learning (OGLL), MSW students Julia LiPuma and Michelle Fletcher co-created NYU Access Stories: Julia, which captures many of the access challenges Julia faces at NYU and Silver in particular as someone who gets around using a motorized scooter and canes. Conceived by Julia and filmed and edited by Michelle, the approximately 14-minute video follows Julia from her NYU apartment along her commute to Washington Square Park and into NYU Silver’s building at 1 Washington Square North. 

In the video, Julia notes that her apartment with its fob-controlled door is, to her knowledge, NYU’s only accessible unit and yet it is on the ninth floor, which would leave her stranded in a fire with all the elevators down. Since the filming of the video, there have been many occurrences where only one elevator has been working which in turn doubles the time it takes to get up and downstairs. On one occurrence she has actually been stranded with all elevators down causing her to miss one of her classes. As she pulls up to Silver’s accessible side entrance, she recalls that on her first day of class, no one knew she was at the accessible door and no one had given her instructions on how to get in. It took intervention from Associate Dean of Student Affairs Courtney O’Mealley to make sure that wasn’t a problem for her in the future. Inside the building, Julia explains that after advocacy from her and Michelle’s Field Instructor, OGLL Director Ben Sher, the high door saddles that used to block her scooter from entering Silver’s “accessible” bathrooms were removed. However, as the film shows she still must complete multiple turns in her scooter to maneuver from the bathroom back into the main hallway. She shares how her scooter is too big to fit into her classroom so she is required to leave it in the hall, use her canes instead, and to ask someone else to carry her backpack in for her. 

“The more people know, the more advocacy happens,” said Julia. “I wanted to show how much of my day is truly barriered. There are so many obstacles that I run into that most other people never think about as a problem.” 

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The video highlights the need for holistic and ongoing implementation of access practices from a Disability Justice lens. Quoting language from Creating New Futures’ “Notes on Equitable Funding,” Michelle says, “We must eradicate the notion of ‘accommodation’ at NYU, which infers that those without a disability are doing those with disabilities a series of favors. Instead let us discern the term ‘access’ as a verb which provides for all.” 

Modeling accessibility practices, the video has closed captions, Michelle provides audio describing the action, and Julia provides detailed descriptions of four photos displayed on the end card that show her riding a jet ski, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, and snow skiing. “Since we were making a video about access,” said Michelle, “it was important to us to make the video itself accessible.”  Added Julia, “I had the idea to add photos at the end to show that my disability doesn’t stop me from living life, but I also wanted to describe what was happening in the pictures so that people who can’t see would be able to take in the content too.”” 

Michelle, who is an accomplished director, choreographer, dance filmmaker, educator, and artist manager, noted that she came to the project having learned about disability justice during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. “My community has expanded quite a bit over the past two years in those who identify as having a disability and being chronically ill. I’m part of a group of artist labor activists called Creating New Futures, and I’ve had the privilege and honor of learning directly from people with disabilities who are a part of that community. They have tools to make life accessible that all of a sudden, during the pandemic, people without disabilities needed and in some spaces started to extract from that community. It seems that access lessons learned were quickly abandoned with the return to in-person activities. I’m really trying to apply my new learnings in a disability justice framework that works from a perspective that we all have complex bodies and minds that need various forms of access, especially as we continue to collectively (hopefully) maneuver in this pandemic.” 

With assistance Mr. Sher, Julia and Michelle have been sharing their video with School and University leaders, who have the power to change policies, as well as fellow students, faculty, staff, and other members of the University community, whom they hope will join them in their advocacy for holistic access for everyone. In early March, they presented the video to their Social Work Practice II class, taught by Clinical Associate Professor Dina Rosenfeld, as part of their midterm. Their classmate Gabe Lopez, who has been fully blind since birth, told the class “That was the most accessible video I’ve ever experienced at NYU.”

Julia and Michelle invite people who experience the video to reflect on access barriers they notice in their various environments, and specifically at NYU. They urge viewers to ask themselves how they might work alongside Julia and Michelle to amplify the call for change. And they ask those who have access stories of their own to contact them at