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Kean University

Kean Highlights Disability Justice at Human Rights Conference

Kean University’s 15th annual Human Rights Conference explored the topic of justice for people with disabilities, bringing together activists who urged attendees to use their power to enact change.

Hosted by Kean’s Human Rights Institute (HRI), the December 2 Conference, One Billion Forgotten: A Discussion on Disability Justice, featured former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand; 18-year-old disability activist Isabel Mavrides-Calderón; and other speakers.

“At Kean, we teach our students to be upstanders – to stand up for their beliefs, for their rights, and for the rights of others,” said Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D., in his welcome remarks.

Eric LeGrand speaking at the Human Rights Conference at Kean

“By being here today, you are part of our community of upstanders. You will leave here equipped to lend your voice to the critical issue of disability rights and remind all whom you encounter that inclusion is not for some – not even for most – but for all,” Repollet said.

The Conference was kicked off by HRI Director Lauretta A. Farrell, D.Litt., and moderated by disabled advocate Millie Gonzalez, ’02 ’07, communication strategist in Kean’s Office of University Relations. The event included awards presentations, Q&A sessions, and a panel discussion on disability disclosure. Panelists were Nicole Schroeder, Ph.D., Kean University Equity in Action Fellow; Barbara Goldstein, retired educator; and Aidan Allman-Cooper, an author and Kean student.

“Disability justice aims to dismantle the systemic barriers that the most historically marginalized groups such as women, people of color, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ+ community face,” Gonzalez said. “We will hear the voices and experiences of just a few of the ‘one billion forgotten’ as a means to achieve meaningful, sustainable change.”

LeGrand became an advocate for the disabled community after sustaining a spinal cord injury on the football field in 2010 that left him paralyzed.

He shared the powerful story of his injury, which occurred while he was making a tackle in a Rutgers game played at MetLife Stadium. LeGrand recalled the realization that sunk in when he could not give a thumbs up to the stadium crowd as he was carried off the field.

“My life was turned upside down in a matter of seconds,” he said.

He described his journey through recovery and the hard work he put into his rehabilitation, as well as completing his courses and graduating with his Rutgers degree.

LeGrand said he realized his role is “to use my platform to help people.”

“If you can take the time to help somebody else, do it. Uplift them and help them,” he said. “If I was able to do it, you guys can accomplish anything you want in this world.”

Mavrides-Calderón, a high school senior, fights for accommodations for disabled people, and uses TikTok and other social media to raise awareness of disability history and justice. She described her struggle – and success – in gaining remote access to her high school classes after spinal surgery kept her from attending class in-person.

“I've learned I don't need a legal super woman to conduct the research or change the laws for me. I have the power and agency to do that myself,” she said. “As a disabled person, I often don't have power and agency over my own body. But the perspective becoming disabled has given me, has taught me to step into the power that I do have, that we all have, to enact change.”

The audience at the Conference included hundreds of high school students, many of whom asked questions of the speakers. Afterward, both students and teachers said they found the session enlightening.

“I liked it. It makes you look at things differently,” said Thamya Lamarr, a junior at Carteret High School.

“I thought it was incredible, really informative,” said Lindsay Otero, a Montclair High School senior. “I learned so many statistics I didn’t know before.”

Added Carteret social studies teacher Jerry Derillo: “The content is very relevant for today – getting everybody to be included.” 

Awards were also presented at the Conference as follows:

  • Outstanding Young Human Rights Activist – Mavrides-Calderon
  • Outstanding Human Rights Activist – LeGrand
  • Outstanding Community Human Rights Activist – Gonzalez
  • Hank Kaplowitz Outstanding Human Rights Educator – Nicole Schroeder, Ph.D.
  • Lifetime Achievement Human Rights Award – Barbara Goldstein
  • Outstanding Student Human Rights Activist – Aidan Allman-Cooper