Christine Lew is mad, and she wants to tell people about it.
It’s not so much that she’s angry, although she feels that kind of mad, too, when she encounters overt ableism or systemic barriers to disabled people.
No, Christine’s kind of mad is crazy-mad, insane-mad, mental-illness mad. She has long-term depression and panic-attack-inducing anxiety, and she is reclaiming the historically pejorative use of ‘mad’ to describe her identity within a disability framework.
A disabled-identifying CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), Christine is the program operations manager with Disability Resources for Students (DRS), where she coordinates support services for students with disabilities to ensure their access and inclusion at UW.
Like many in the disability justice community, Christine advocates for language reclamation as a means of personal and social empowerment. Reclaiming words used to deride those who are ‘other’ – such as mad, insane, and queer – creates space for more inclusivity and a more expansive understanding of disability as a valuable aspect of identity.
Outside of UW, Christine is the public relations and HR manager for disabled-owned and led company Crip Riot, a startup of UW alumni creatives committed to centering disability pride through activist storytelling, education and merchandise sales.
The name Crip Riot is itself a short-form reclamation of “cripple”, a slur long intended as a weapon of derision against disabled people.
“Reclamation of language like disabled, insane, mad, and crip holds incredible power for those like us,” Christine wrote in the Crip Riot blog. “It represents the ability to take back our stories and to strengthen our communities.”
Christine spends a lot of time, both professionally and personally, centering disability – for the students she supports in her work, for the staff and faculty with whom she consults, and for herself, as she works with a therapist to address her mental health needs.
She’s open, even jocular, about her ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety – her favorite depressed activity is strumming her ukulele on the floor while crying – and she hopes her example helps to destigmatize mental illness for others.
In fact, it was the positive affirmation of her mentor that proved fundamental to Christine’s acceptance of her own intersectional identity. As a first-year student at UW, she met Ashley Cowan D’Ambrosio, then the director of the UW Student Disability Commission – a role Christine would take on for her last two years at UW.
A self-identified disabled, queer, mad/mentally ill high school dropout activist, Ashley demonstrated what empowered activism could – should – look like in the pursuit of normalizing disability and neurodiversity.
“Seeing how people positively reacted to Ashley’s own openness of her identities – it made me brave,” Christine said.
Following graduation, with dual degrees in psychology and disability studies and a minor in American Sign Language (ASL), Christine had no intention of sticking around UW in a staff role. She and Ashley were working on two successful entrepreneurial endeavors and life was good.
But when she saw the DRS position, she saw an opportunity. As a student, Christine never secured documentation for her disability – lacking guidance for how to go about getting it – and as a result she never accessed services that would have made her learning experience more equitable.
For instance, an initiative started by Ashley Cowan D’Ambrosio, with which Christine was involved as a student and continues to support now as a staff member, Distance Learning Now, advocates for accessible distance learning integration and self-paced, asynchronous instruction options for all students at UW.
The initiative predates the pandemic but has been greatly helped by the success of remote learning and the increase in Universal Design in the past two years.
Distance Learning Now intends to highlight the stories of those students who rely on remote access to succeed: the students who are too depressed to get out of bed some days, the students who benefit from the auto-captioning on Zoom, the students who are parents, commuters, and workers who benefit from the flexibility in scheduling.
Ironically, Christine’s job is fully in-office, but she hopes to transition to a hybrid schedule that fosters a whole person workplace.
“I can make sure students don’t have the experience I did,” Christine said of her role with DRS. “I can help eliminate barriers for students with disabilities, level the playing field, and be an advocate for social justice.”
She loves the work: the dynamism and opportunity to effect real and lasting change.
One of her favorite tasks is sharing her experience while training student employees at DRS. About once a week, she treks over to Winco and loads a basket full of treats to stock her office: Cheez-Its, circus animal cookies, chips, Funyuns, and lots of chocolate.
The students love it. The treats, of course – they’re college students, after all – but also the sense of community, of shared experience, that Christine and the DRS staff foster and celebrate.
“UW has a vibrant, flourishing disability community,” she said. She is doing her part to keep it that way.
The future is hybrid
Christine plans, eventually, to pursue graduate school in disability studies – ideally outside the U.S. She’d love to go to the United Kingdom – Scotland, maybe – and take a deep dive into the narratives of disabled students’ educational journeys.
She is especially interested in the burgeoning discipline of crip theory, which challenges the traditional narrative of disability as affecting individual bodies that need fixing, and instead views disability as an exceptional characteristic of one’s intersectional identity.
Watch: I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much (TED Talks)
Shorter-term, Christine wants to pursue her ASL interpreter certificate. With Deaf parents, of course she learned ASL early and has long served as an interpreter – but it wasn’t until college that she realized how much more nuanced her ASL communication could become.
She recalls being in an ice cream shop recently, jumping in to help a Deaf couple order mint chocolate chip flavor – and having to finger spell the letters for part of the order.
It was Department of Linguistics professor and ASL Language Director Lance Forshay, Christine notes, who not only inspired her deeper engagement with the study of ASL but also encouraged her participation in the UW Deaf community.
That workaholic tendency? It’s still there, fed by her full-time job, her startups, her advocacy work and her community. But she’s trying to focus on self-care: reading (she’s currently enjoying The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo), kayaking with her grandparents near their home on Silcox Island, and watching Grey’s Anatomy.
“And Legend of Zelda on Nintendo Switch,” Christine added. “It reminds me of playing with my older brothers on the Wii when I was a kid.”
Advocating for disability justice is unquestionably challenging work. Anyone who knows Christine, however, knows that she and everyone involved with the disability justice community at UW will continue to fight for a fully equitable and inclusive world for disabled people.
Interested in learning more? Join UW WorkLife and The Whole U for “Supporting Neurodiverse Colleagues in the Workplace“, a virtual presentation with Christine and other neurodiverse-identifying advocates and experts on June 1 at noon.