Accessibility on a campus seemingly always under construction requires someone to build metaphorical bridges before they are finished. Newly appointed director of the Bob Murphy Access Center, Carmen Valera looks to assist over 1,500 students this semester with their academic and personal goals.
The Daily 49er sat down with Valera to talk about her background, the challenges she faces following the former director David Sanfilippo and fulfilling moments she has had with students.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
The way this began for me was 25 years ago when my kids were very small and I found out they had learning disabilities. It’s a pretty involved disability in elementary school, so it was my entry in the world of disability as a young mom. My personal life has paralleled my career life. This was very personal because these were kids. How do I figure how to advocate for my kids? The biggest lesson that I learned was that the immediate first placement they wanted for my kids was a segregated environment.
Historically, people with disabilities have been fighting against segregation to be included into the regular community. What that meant for me as a parent was: It was a fight with the school districts for a very long time.
I moved to California in 2002 where I started a job at Disability Rights California. They’re the protection and advocacy for the state of California for people with disabilities. I spent 16 years there prior to coming here. I would say it was one of the best experiences I ever had; what we were doing was we were advancing justice with people with disabilities through individual representation work, but also systemic work.
How does it feel to follow a director that served Long Beach State for so long?
I spent two weeks with Dave. Everyone was saying you got some big shoes to fill. He started when there was nothing. It’s been interesting because I’m a much different person. You know Dave, as well as I, had a very strong sense of what’s right and making sure students have what they need to be successful.
What do the students say about the accessibility on campus?
So you know I think it’s mixed; this is a campus that is constantly under construction. There’s always stuff happening. We really do our best. A physical accessibility on campus is always a work in progress. I don’t think it’s ever going to be the perfect ideal, but I think that the campus tries really hard and is very mindful about accessibility, at least that’s what I’ve seen since I’ve been here.
What do you plan to accomplish here?
I think what is the most important for me is to ensure that students with disabilities have choice and voice in the services that are going to affect them academically. It’s not about us or anyone telling a student: “This is what you should have.” It’s about having that conversation about what’s available, what is it that you need, what is it that has worked for you in the past. So I think it is really ensuring that the student is really part of that decision in terms of accomodations. So those are some of my plans for the future and also to address issues around ableisms, which is the value that society places on able-bodied people and what that means when you think about academia.
What do you think the biggest challenge is?
We have an increasing number of students who have mental health disabilities. Sometimes the kind of ongoing type of therapeutic care that students require becomes a challenge for us. I think one of the things that I’d really like to do in the next year or so is kind of thinking about campaigns to [destigmatize] mental health across campus … think about what does inclusion really look like in a campus community … and really begin to think about ways to do that.”
What has been the most fulfilling moment as the director here so far?
I think it’s been the students. I end up helping a lot of students who have either been disqualified from school because of grades or because of things that have happened and really supporting them to get back into school. It’s really just helping them find their voice, being their advocate and helping them advocate for themselves. I think is what’s the most rewarding to me. I’m just excited to be here; LBSU is a great place. My commitment has been in the service for people with disabilities for 25 years. It’s what I’ve chosen in terms of my work, my scholarship, etc. I think this building, this center to me, represents kind of the best of the best. I think it’s a statement for the campus about how LBSU values students and how we should all value our students and people with disabilities.