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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

Beth Halsted speaking at the Hooper Conference
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Tara Lennon

This year’s Hooper Conference highlighted the fight for disability rights

In developing the theme of this year’s Thomas H. Hooper III ’71 Conference on Equity & Justice, a few things came together for Dean of Inclusion & Belonging Dr. Danica Tisdale Fisher. She remembered watching the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, a 2020 documentary that explores the history of the disability rights movement, and feeling touched by the sense of interconnectedness that exists between various campaigns for civil and human rights. She also reflected on conversations she had with Grace Anne Doyle ’25, a consistent voice on campus who educates the school community about issues of access and disability.

“I was inspired to use the Hooper Conference to lift up this topic for our community to consider,” Fisher says.

Titled “Access, Advocacy, and the Fight for Disability Rights,” the conference was held March 1-3 and organized by Fisher, the Student Diversity Committee (SDC), and Doyle.

At the conference, disability rights advocates Beth Halsted ’77, Jenny Kern ’83, and Athletics Aide Mike Rivera P’23,’26 told their personal stories of resilience and the work they’ve done in the struggle for equal access. 

Halsted opened up the conference in a Friday morning chapel talk speaking to her athletic experiences at St. Andrew’s. One of the first girls to attend the school, she played field hockey until a knee injury took her out of play. However, this injury presented her with a new opportunity: to assist close friend Tripper Showell ’75 in the training room, which she ended up doing every following fall and winter of her time at SAS. She recovered from the injury enough to forge what would become a lifelong passion for rowing. The same knee injury sidelined her in her VI Form year, leading her to take on a coaching position for the second boat. 

It was her days in the training room, however, that proved more useful than she could have ever imagined. 

“I found myself a decade later, trapped in a wrecked car on a dark country road, needing every bit of that accumulated knowledge, composure, and skill to stay alive for the six hours it took to be found,” Halsted told students. She knew that her neck was broken, and she also knew that falling asleep would put her in danger. “Tripper’s instruction about spinal injury, concussion, shock, and its treatment revisited me that night as I tasked myself to remain alert through the many hours before sunrise.” 

In the months following the accident, she had to relearn everything she knew about her body, and re-negotiate her relationship with crew. She loved the sport so much that she couldn’t bear the idea of getting back in the boat in a modified way. But her St. Andrew’s community, who remained in her corner, knew to challenge her. 

“I would have never gotten back in a crew shell had I not been contacted by the very same handful of boys who encouraged me to get on the water in the spring of 1974,” she said. 

With her former classmates, they built a rowing club of alumni oarsmen in Wilmington, Delaware, with her in the cox seat. 

“As challenges presented themselves, they would be conquered,” she said. “Every practice, once they put the boat in the water, one of them would scoop me up and put me in the boat … Being back on the water with those guys and finding a way I could be involved with a sport I loved felt like freedom, and I will be forever grateful. They just knew what I needed and they refused to allow any barriers to that experience.” 

Beth Halstead presentation

The discussion about overcoming barriers to access continued that evening, with an all-school screening of the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. The documentary tells the story of Camp Jened, a camp where teenagers with disabilities explored a future not marked by isolation, discrimination, and institutionalization, but by full inclusion and liberation. The documentary follows the activists who migrated from Camp Jened to Berkeley, California, and fought for disability justice. 

Doyle, along with the SDC, spearheaded group discussions following the documentary screening in Engelhard. The V former says that watching the documentary was an eye-opening experience for her and her peers. 

“Last year and this year, I’ve given speeches at School Meeting to explain my experience with disability and what I ask from people around me,” she says. “But I think with this conference … I wanted people to understand that sharing my experience is my experience. And every single person with a disability has different things that they can and can’t do, and their experience and feelings toward their disability are going to be different.”

Doyle says the documentary showed numerous perspectives and identities of people who live with all types of disabilities. 

“That was really good, because there’s a small number of people at St. Andrew’s that live with physical or cognitive disabilities, whether they’re visible or invisible,” Doyle says. “The documentary was an opportunity for people to hear a lot of different perspectives.”

Kern is an expert on the history of the Disability Rights Movement that Crip Camp documents because she was part of making that history happen. In a live virtual talk and Q&A with Kern the following morning, the school community furthered the conversation about the evolution of disability rights. 

Kern’s journey with disability began in the mid ’80s when she sustained a spinal cord injury in a car accident soon after she entered college. 

“That May day, I entered a new world about which I knew practically nothing,” she said. “But I knew myself and that despite the many losses, I was intact in the most fundamental of ways.” Like Halsted, she cited the love and support of her friends and family, including her St. Andrew’s community, who sustained her during a difficult time. 

Kern’s experience with disability led her to advocacy. After transferring to Barnard College after the injury, she joined a school committee aimed at increasing access for students with disabilities. She learned how to be creative, how to ask friends for help, and she integrated her experience of being a person who uses a wheelchair into her identity. 

Since, Kern has done and seen it all. She briefly returned to St. Andrew’s to coach crew and teach before traveling to Berkeley to volunteer and campaign for disability rights. She went to law school and practiced public interest law, before founding Inclusive Cycling International to increase access to adaptive cycling. Internationally, she also advocates for access to wheelchairs and organizes conferences on disability.

“What events or places or causes will be your Camp Jened?” Kern asked students. “What in your life will bring together the parts of yourself that you love, and maybe you’ve been taught to be ashamed of? Where is the place and who are the people that you risk turning toward to be your truest self and to perhaps create something bigger than yourself?”

Jenny Kern presentation

The story of Kern’s extensive career elicited numerous questions from the student moderators—Doyle, Zachary Macalintal ’24, and Ashley McIntosh ’25—and the audience. Among questions about her perspective on Crip Camp and her experiences with adaptive sports, Saints looked to Kern for advice on what they can do to identify the “new frontier” for disability activism and be activists and allies themselves.

The conference concluded Sunday evening with a presentation from Rivera. Rivera, who is deaf, had two goals: to educate students on the fight for deaf rights today and on 1988’s Deaf President Now student protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., as well as to expand the community’s understanding of Deaf culture. 

“As I interact with students daily in the athletics department, it was a great opportunity to share some basic tips for engaging and communicating with deaf people,” Rivera writes. 

He shared his background, including the barriers and language deprivation he experienced as a child, and his experience going to boarding school. When he learned American Sign Language (ASL), his “world opened.”

Fast forward to his time at Gallaudet, a university designed to educate deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Rivera and fellow students at Gallaudet came together with a shared cause: to demand that the school’s board of trustees appoint a deaf president instead of the hearing candidate they chose to lead the university. Students shut the doors of their buildings, they marched, and they campaigned under the banner of “Deaf President Now” until the leaders of the university took notice, finally appointing a deaf president instead.

Rivera asserted that the battle for deaf rights is not over, citing a need for open-captioned movies at theaters among other challenges.

He also provided tips for the community to communicate better with him and other deaf and hard-of-hearing people: make eye-contact when speaking, write or text to communicate, and learn basic phrases in ASL. 

“I want students to be aware of the Deaf community, American Sign Language, and our fight against isolation and the need for access everyday,” Rivera shares. 

He adds that he was touched to see how many students attended his presentation and engaged with him with excitement, energy, and thoughtful questions. 

“You can see the importance of the event by the way the students interacted with me before the weekend and again after the conference,” Rivera notes. “Everyone internalized my message and are much more willing to engage with me and ask questions about my culture, my language, and my experience.”

Mike Rivera presentation

Fisher says that she was thoroughly impressed by the “intellectual curiosity” of both the student organizers of the conference and the student body as they explored disability rights history and these personal experiences during the conference. 

“For some, this was the first time that they had thought critically about disability issues or even considered the history of the disability rights movement, so in many ways this conference provided a new lens through which to think about equity and inclusion that some had not imagined before,” says Fisher. 

While the conference may be over, Fisher says the campus conversation about access and ability is just getting started. 

“From what we’ve learned about our community through our guest presenters, SAS has come a long way in terms of its physical accessibility for all of us who live and learn on this campus, and in terms of ensuring accommodations are met in our classrooms,” she says. “While we applaud where we’ve progressed, it is always important to think about ways that we can strive to be more inclusive and accessible. I think the conference sparked some of those conversations and encouraged our students to take inventory of our spaces and our culture to find new ways to advance belongingness and equity at St. Andrew’s.”

Students at Mike Rivera presentation


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