Casey Gagliardi
Casey Gagliardi served in leadership roles at VCU, helping to strengthen the culture of accessibility for students with disabilities at the university. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

How Casey Gagliardi used her experiences with disability to advocate for her fellow students

After a difficult first semester at VCU, Gagliardi resolved to pursue improvements and help the university “be more inclusive and accessible for students with disabilities.”

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The first panel discussion of the newly formed Association of Students with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions had just wrapped up a few years ago when word spread that VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., was one floor up in the University Student Commons at a meet and greet for the university community. Collectively, a group of students that included panelist Casey Gagliardi decided to head upstairs to introduce themselves and let him know about their new organization. 

When the students reached him, Rao proved receptive to hearing about the mission of the organization and asked questions about its plans, Gagliardi said. As she stood there, Gagliardi realized that the students had the ear of the president, and the moment should not go to waste.

“I thought right then that if we were going to change things at VCU, we were going to need to ask for that change — we couldn’t just wait for it,” she said. 

So Gagliardi asked Rao if he would begin to mention disabilities when he talked about the importance of diversity at VCU. Too often, she said, students with disabilities “both seen and unseen” felt overlooked and left out. Even as she spoke, Gagliardi was surprised at herself — surprised to be a vocal advocate speaking to the president of her university with such assurance. 

Rao immediately pulled out his phone and texted a message to someone on his staff about the suggestion. Days later, a mass email to the university community about the opening of the new academic year included the language that VCU was made up of “diversity both seen and unseen.”

“When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that was a change I helped make,’” Gagliardi said. More recently, Gagliardi saw a message from the president that mentioned students with disabilities when highlighting the rich culture of diversity at VCU.

“I was just so proud of VCU in those moments,” Gagliardi said. “It really showed that change was possible here.” 

Gagliardi, who graduated in May, showed a propensity for pushing for meaningful change during her time as a student. In addition to her time with the Association of Students with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions, where she was a co-founder and board member, Gagliardi was the first student representative on the committee of the Transforming Accessibility Initiative at VCU, a collaborative of individuals and teams dedicated to inclusion and access for individuals with disabilities. Gagliardi also served as an intern for the Division of Student Affairs and acted as a student ambassador with the Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity office.

“Casey has used her own experiences as a student with a disability to become an advocate for the entire population of students with disabilities at VCU,” said Ian Kunkes, director of student accessibility and educational opportunity in the Division of Student Affairs. 

“I thought right then that if we were going to change things at VCU, we were going to need to ask for that change — we couldn’t just wait for it.”

Casey Gagliardi

Gagliardi’s initial experience at VCU was inauspicious. As a freshman from Leesburg, Virginia, Gagliardi arrived in Richmond having been recently diagnosed with a chronic disability and her first semester “didn’t go well,” she said. She left during winter break with no intention of ever returning.

“I wasn’t even sure then if I was capable of graduating from college,” Gagliardi said. “But during that time off, I realized that I actually was. And I also realized that I didn’t want the barriers that I’d experienced in college to be in place for other disabled students. That brought me back to VCU.”

Gagliardi knew she had people in her corner at VCU, such as Kunkes. She returned with a fresh determination.

“I really decided that I wanted to help change things here,” Gagliardi said. “I wanted to help VCU be more inclusive and accessible for students with disabilities.”

Much of that advocacy came through her participation with the Association of Students with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions and the Transforming Accessibility Initiative. She served as the first advocacy chair for the student organization, which allowed her to provide direct support for her fellow students.

“If there was an issue someone was having on campus, I could direct them to someone to talk to or I could reach out to someone with VCU and say, ‘Hey, here’s a problem that our organization has identified. Here are some possible solutions. Can we work together and fix this?’” Gagliardi said.

The Association of Students with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions has been a major addition to the campus community, Gagliardi said.

“It changed things for a lot of us because we had a place where we could go and know that people understood us,” Gagliardi said. “We didn’t have to worry about people judging us. No matter what, we knew that even if someone didn’t have the same disability they would still understand us because they also understand what it’s like navigating the world as a person with a disability. It gave us a community for students with disabilities that we hadn’t had before.” 

Meanwhile, working with the Transforming Accessibility Initiative gave Gagliardi an invaluable seat at the table during discussions about universitywide accessibility issues. Her experience included participating in the planning for a “Creating a Culture of Access” event in 2019 that featured an appearance by Temple Grandin, the prominent disability rights advocate, and drew a large crowd to the Altria Theater.

“From the second I joined the committee, they treated me as an equal,” Gagliardi said. “They included me in all aspects of what we worked on. The fact that they treated me as a colleague really solidified my interest in higher education and advocacy because I was able to get a view of what it would be like to be a professional in the field.”

Gagliardi said VCU has room for improvement when it comes to the way it approaches accessibility and disability, but she is proud of the progress made in recent years. She hopes to build a career in disability advocacy in higher education, helping institutions seek improvements similar to the ones she has seen at VCU.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, having designed a unique curriculum that focused on advocacy studies. She will begin her master’s degree in higher education and student affairs this fall at the Ohio State University. At Ohio State, she will hold a funded assistantship in the Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator’s Office, an ideal platform for launching the next phase of her career. 

“I’m excited to see where everything takes me next, but I know that I want to continue doing advocacy for students with disabilities,” Gagliardi said. “I want to help the field of higher education improve so that it is inherently accessible and there are no more barriers for students with disabilities. That’s the ultimate goal, and I think we can make it happen.”