Nothing About Us Without Us

Students with Disabilities Advocacy Group Exceeds Expectations as a New Student Organization

Founding Executive Committee: L-R: Emily Hennessey, Lorena Martinez, Madeline Ryan Smith, Brianne Dollar, Jill King

Three friends spent their early years at Georgia Southern joining a variety of student groups, but they never quite felt at home.

“Someone said ‘you should start your own club,’” said Jill King, a psychology major who is legally blind. “We’re all like, huh? That’s a good idea, let’s go with it. We saw a need and we decided to fill it.”

“Students with Disabilities Advocacy Group [SDAG], was started out of necessity,” said Double Eagle, past president and founder, Madeline Ryan Smith (’20,’22). She just happens to also be legally blind.

“Most organizations on campus don’t prioritize disabled student voices,” King said. 

Smith, King and fellow cofounder Brianne Dollar were all disappointed in the inaccessibility and ableism that was frequently present in groups they tried, even groups that were ostensibly created to help disabled students. But because those groups historically had no disabled members, disability was not top of mind.

When SDAG first got off the ground, they were surprised how quickly they could fill the unmet need, not just for themselves but for the larger Georgia Southern community.

“There are a lot more disabled students on campus than we originally thought,” said King. “We would have an information table in Russell Union and people would say, ‘oh my gosh, there’s a club for people like me?’ And we would say, heck yeah, join us.”

Nothing About Us Without Us

Accessibility is important not just for University clubs but for the entire southeast region of the United States. The Center for Disease Control tells us that 26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability and the percentage of people living with disabilities is highest in the South.

“The problem with disability access in University buildings is that they were designed without disability input,” said King. “There are accessible entrances with ramps, but sometimes they’re just not enough. Some buildings might have elevators but they are tiny, so it’s hard to navigate when you are in a wheelchair. I’m like, hey, I’m a disabled person, please listen to me before you assume what you need to do for us.”

“They have checked off the boxes to meet ADA legal requirements, but that is just the bare minimum required by law,” said Smith. “And that’s exactly why SDAG was founded. We knew as disabled students that we were the only ones advocating for ourselves, which is why we have the saying in the community, nothing about us without us.

More Than Community

What began with the simple need to find community has in its second year grown to over 40 members. The group keeps busy with numerous events and community outreach such as Disability Community Week and fundraising events for many disability-related organizations.

“Last year we did Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a guide dog school in New York where Madeline got her dog,” said King. “And there’s Camp Twin Lakes, where they do camps for kids with different conditions like cancer. And then the third one is Friends of Disabled Adults and Children based in Georgia. One of the big things they do is they give wheelchairs to people who are in need of them but can’t afford them.”

The results of SDAG’s actions have reached more than Statesboro, with national award nominations and wins for individuals as well as the entire group.

King received the 2022 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Georgia Young Leader Award and was awarded the Rookie of the Year Award from the Social Health Network, an organization which promotes communication and leadership within the health care community. SDAG was a finalist for Best Team and Smith was nominated for the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Social Health Network. Dollar received the Steven Bochco Award from Gift of Life for being responsible for registering over 300 bone marrow donors.

More Than a Disability

Having a disability is just part of these ladies’ lives.

Smith ran last November for Georgia House District 158. The first-time candidate received 30% of the vote and is planning to run again in 2024.

Dollar recently left Statesboro and SDAG for a job in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Smith and King have started a social media, graphic design and marketing agency for nonprofits that focus on the disabled community. 

“Right now we are working with several nonprofits in our business, Blind Bear Creative, focusing on digital accessibility and disabled representation in all forms of media.” said Smith. “SDAG really taught me social media magic and the value of graphic design as part of advocacy. A lot of the disabled community is on social media because that’s how we connect to the outside world.”

These ladies are unusual in having gained full employment as disabled persons. Although one in four of the U.S. population is disabled, full employment is low. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, from November 2020 to November 2022 the labor force participation rate of persons with disabilities was 38.8% versus 76.9% for persons without a disability.

Even though Smith has graduated, she is still involved with SDAG events. The group was designed so graduates can still be a part of
the activities.

“We’ve blossomed into this advocacy group that has actually gotten a lot done on our college campuses and has become a really great, safe haven for people with disabilities,” said Smith. 

“It’s a tiny but mighty advocacy group.” — Liz Walker

Smith’s graduation photo