The Tufts community is home to a wide variety of upstanding community members, including senior Mindy Duggan, who has taken her interest in disability advocacy to her studies, extracurriculars and work life. Duggan crafted her major in child study and human development to concentrate in developmental diversity and deaf studies.
“I chose to do that and named it ‘developmental diversity and deaf studies’ and took classes along those lines because that was my interest. It’s my passion,” Duggan said.
Duggan shared that working as a personal care assistant for her friend’s brother, who has Down syndrome, initially inspired her to work with people who have disabilities.
“His mom needed someone to look after him and asked if I was interested, so I did the personal care attendant training and have been watching him ever since seventh grade,” Duggan said.
Duggan added that she took sign language classes through her friend’s brother’s school, Beverly School for the Deaf, which offers programs for students with developmental disabilities as well as students who are deaf.
“I ended up taking clases there which was amazing, and I think he is the one that really drew me in, and [I learned] about his experiences, both the things that he loves doing and the things he didn’t like as much, some of the struggles he had in school … like the stigma around disability [and] the way people treated him in school,” Duggan said.
Duggan spent time with him after school throughout middle and high schools. Through spending time with him, Duggan was able to learn about the challenges he faced in his daily life as well as issues around accessibility and inclusion in the educational system.
“It really empowered me to advocate for people with disabilities, especially those that don’t have a voice for themselves because he’s mostly nonverbal,” Duggan said. “I started learning about how to be an advocate and just started going to Best Buddies, Special Olympics, and then eventually getting jobs at different organizations that work for disability [issues].”
Duggan explained that Best Buddies is an international organization with chapters in different schools that pairs a member with a disability and another member who does not identify as someone with a disability. Duggan has been involved with Best Buddies since middle school, and is currently thepresident of the Tufts chapter, which partners with local high schools in Medford and Somerville.
“Typically, [Best Buddies is] one person with a disability and one person who does not have a disability, and it builds a friendship between them,” Duggan said. “You go on outings every month — I think there [are] requirements for how many you have to do, but it’s not really about the rules, it’s just about the connection, at least in my mind.”
Duggan has also been involved with Special Olympics, although this was primarily while she was still attending Wilmington High School, which hosted Special Olympics events.
“It was great to just be in an environment where you could do sports that are typically extremely competitive and hard to access and hard to be included in, in a setting where everyone was included and just having a good time,” Duggan said.
In addition to her on-campus involvement in Best Buddies and the Linus Project, a club that makes blankets for children in hospitals, Duggan has also spent time working at organizations off campus. She worked at 3LPlace, a day center for adults with developmental disabilities, during her junior year and currently works at Boston Center for Independent Living.
“A qualification for them to be a center for independent living is that … more than 51% of their staff have a disability, which I thought was so amazing,” Duggan said. “There [are] not many places that hire people with disabilities.”
Duggan added that she does not identify as a person with a disability, and she acknowledges that she benefits from able-bodied privilege. With this in mind, Duggan reflected on what her advocacy work for disability rights has meant to her personal and professional journey.
“Being able to work for an organization … that has so many people who are living in a world that was not designed for or by them is a privilege in itself,” Duggan said. “I feel really lucky to be able to work with my coworkers, and they are doing amazing work with advocacy and fighting for accessibility rights [and] disability justice.”
In light of her work experiences, Duggan shared her views on the issues of accessibility at Tufts. As Duggan sees it, even as the university provides great resources for accessibility, such as the Student Accessibility and Academic Resources Center, there can be difficulties in accessing them for students on the ground.
“I can say that the StAAR center is amazing. They do accommodations and honestly just want to do what every student needs. However, in practice, it’s not always as easy as it sounds,” Duggan said. “People have to be advocates for [themselves] … and if it’s difficult for somebody to step up and take that role and say exactly what they need, they often will not get what they need.”
On top of that, Duggan noted that Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus presents many physical barriers for students with disabilities.
“There’s an assistive technology class in the occupational therapy department that I took, and they worked to make a map of campus to show where the accessible routes are,” Duggan said. “I remember seeing the map and it was just sad how many places just were not accessible.”
Duggan added that while adjustments can be made to the campus infrastructure like adding ramps and elevators, there is not much that can be done regarding the campus’s physical location on a hill. Even so, Duggan commended the university’s efforts to expand resources for accessibility, citing that Tufts has started to offer Lyft credits to students with disabilities, for example.
“In the past, students with disabilities who had accessibility trouble around campus would call TUPD, and they would ride them to classes but that’s really awkward, like calling a police officer and having them drive you to class,” Duggan said. “But now, Tufts actually offers … Lyft credits to students with disabilities who are registered with the Staar Center and you can take a Lyft — I think it’s a mile radius away from campus — and they’ll pay for it.”
As far as the culture on Tufts campus regarding inclusivity, Duggan noted that the Tufts community can improve language surrounding discussions of disabilities. Duggan also emphasized that campus organizations should make their events more accessible by having their meetings in buildings with elevators or including closed-captions on Zoom meetings.
In this regard, Duggan shared how she has tried to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion in her clubs such as Best Buddies.
“As somebody who is in Best Buddies, who has co-workers who are disabled, I always try and advocate for language that is inclusive and polite and respectful,” Duggan said. “It’s a conversation that is really hard to have because there is no right answer. … There [are] lots of conversations around whether to use person-first or identity-first language when talking about someone with a disability.”
Going forward, Duggan hopes to attend social work programs that focus on disability advocacy. She feels that it is important that people who have disabilities are the ones making laws that affect them, instead of government officials, who are often out of touch with the disabled community.
“I think as a person without a disability, being an advocate and amplifying the voices of people with disabilities is what I hope to do in whatever career I have,” Duggan said.