For MDiv student Anna Gheen, disability is not a theological issue or a topic to discuss objectively in class — it is a daily, lived reality.
“Most people envision a permanent disability as being something that has a consistent, rather than persistent, effect. When the disabilities are invisible, they often aren’t sure how to interpret them, and usually they assume the worst.”
Gheen, the co-founder of Princeton Seminary’s Association for Disabled Seminarians and Allies (ADSA), lives with four diagnosed disabilities: irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Just about every aspect of daily living — from getting out of bed in the morning to eating regular meals to writing a paper — is impaired. Unlike most of us, she takes nothing about daily living for granted.
Each day, Gheen wakes up with three plans for the day: one plan for if she’s feeling well; one plan for if she’s in a great deal of physical pain; and one plan for if she’s not quite in the right place mentally or emotionally. Depending on how she feels when she wakes up, the rest of her day can either feel relatively normal or excruciatingly difficult.
“The greatest frustration I feel over these particular disabilities,” Gheen admits, “is that my actual abilities can vary greatly from day to day. One day I can walk seven miles without a problem and the next I can’t even leave my apartment.” This is difficult for a lot of people to grasp, she says. “Most people envision a permanent disability as being something that has a consistent, rather than persistent, effect. When the disabilities are invisible, they often aren’t sure how to interpret them, and usually they assume the worst.” For Gheen, her invisible disabilities often mean being misunderstood by her peers, damaging her ability to form and maintain long-term relationships.
More than anything else, it was this feeling of being alone on campus that got Gheen thinking about starting a student group where both able-bodied and disabled students could come together for fellowship and to promote disability awareness on campus.
The idea of ADSA first arose one night when Gheen and friend Emmie Arnold, MDiv ’19, were talking together about their shared experiences of living with disability. At the time, Gheen also happened to be in Professor Erin Raffety’s Ministry with People with Disabilities course, which met in Tennent Hall. Gheen says about half of the students in the course were living with disabilities, and yet there was only one parking space available and the handicap access door was frequently inaccessible.
“These issues might not seem like a big deal to someone with an ‘ordinary’ range of physical abilities,” Gheen says, “but they can make the difference between being able to attend a class or having to sit out.”
This situation, along with her more general experience of trying to navigate the disability service system on campus, deepened Gheen’s motivation to start something. When she shared the idea of ADSA with her professor, Raffety encouraged her to make the chartering process her final project for the course. With Raffety’s support, Gheen was able to complete the process.
ADSA is led by a six-member board, about half of whom are able-bodied and half of whom are disabled, and general membership consists of 13 percent of the entire Seminary student body. The group, Gheen says, has already accomplished more than she’d imagined for a three- to five-year goal. They’ve had several major events, including an opening chapel in the park that was disability friendly and a park-in designed to help the administration get a clear visual picture of how many additional parking slots are needed on campus. An invitation from Associate Dean for Academic Administration Rose Ellen Dunn has led to formal discussions about the needs of the current student body with regard to academic services.
Working with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, they added disability issues to the curriculum for the Courageous Conversations initiative. The Faculty Advisory Committee on Diversity has also invited members of ADSA to come speak, and the group is even working with disability services on Princeton University’s campus to plan outreach for graduate students who need support but don’t feel safe enough to admit it to their professors and peers. “The organization of ADSA has allowed us to clearly identify many of the needs on campus,” says Gheen. “To this end, the faculty and administration have been particularly open to hearing what we have to say. Everyone is working together as a team because we all want to make this campus more welcoming. We all want to make it better.”