Story

Worldwide thinking starts in the classroom

The advocacy and activism seminar is introducing students to a broader idea of community.

Aggie sits in a high backed chair. She gestures with her hand as she talks to students

Visiting speaker, Dr. LuanJiao (Aggie) Hu brought in an international perspective that enabled the class to share their perspectives and experiences. Aggie spoke to the class about her experience as a disabled person living in China, the goals of her professional work, and more.

The Advocacy and Activism course at Perkins is new and greatly enjoyed by students. Teacher Laura Dennison created the course so students could learn the importance of advocacy on a personal and systematic level. Ms. Dennison recognized the need for students to understand the context of disability rights in America and beyond. 

“I started this class because I wanted the students to learn about their own history” — Laura Dennison

Sharing a lifelong journey

Aggie has a lifelong history of advocacy and research into the social lens (also called the critical lens) of disability. She has a Ph.D from the International Education Policy program at the University of Maryland. Additionally, she founded “Disability without Borders” and is writing a book titled “Inclusion, exclusion, agency, and advocacy: Experiences of Chinese women with disabilities.”

With everyone arranged comfortably facing each other, the conversation had an informal feeling. After some brief introductions, the students asked when Aggie’s dedication to advocacy began. She explained that her experiences growing up in China started her on this path.

Having developed a limb difference at a young age, Aggie regularly dealt with widespread ableism. During her childhood, the stigma around disability was mirrored by a complete lack of community or government support. The result was intense pressure for Aggie to present as non-disabled, which meant wearing clothes that covered her leg, and not using mobility aids even when in pain or in need of support. 

This was often the only way she was allowed to attend school, or participate in activities with friends. This stigma followed her into adulthood, but with further education, it became clearer than ever that the cultural mindset about disability was the problem, not Aggie.

By sharing her lived experience, Aggie revealed some of the many similarities that disabled folks share worldwide. The need for acceptance, support, and recognition is true no matter where you’re from. It’s also true that the disabled community is uniquely qualified to problem solve and support one another. 

Creating conversation

Having learned about the history of disability rights in the United States, the students were surprised by Aggie’s experiences in China. Even still, they related to having such regular encounters with ableism. 

Aggie happily answered the student’s questions, but was equally excited to ask her own. She came prepared with a list of questions she composed with her colleagues back in China. 

Aggie asked the students if they felt that Braille is an essential skill for blind people to learn. One student named Jake shared that while braille and text to speech have their drawbacks, both are essential. Braille helps people learn important literacy skills, but modern braille devices can be expensive. Text to speech is widely available at low cost, and can quickly recite content as needed. Another student pointed out that text to speech doesn’t allow for private or quiet moments, which is why braille has an advantage in some situations. Privacy needs to be respected when it comes to modern means of communication.

Opinions were widespread and nuanced among the group. Everyone excitedly listened to other’s perspectives and Aggie was appreciative of their willingness to share. The conversation felt brief, but impactful. It was clear that both parties were gaining a new and surprising understanding about each other’s lived experiences. A lecture can inform, but a conversation can validate. We appreciate Aggie’s intention and enthusiasm during her visit. 

Aggie’s visit demonstrated how vital it is to listen to the lived experiences of others. This is how we create better understanding, create change, and find common ground with one another. What could have been a conventional lecture was turned into an exciting conversation that was able to center the voice of students and adults within the disabled community. Aggie’s visit will not be soon forgotten and we’re excited to create more of these conversations in the future. 

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