For the first time in Cornell’s history, students participated in Student Empowerment Day on Feb. 8, rallying in New York State’s Legislative Office in Albany and striving for more state funding for college students with disabilities.
Founded in 2021, Student Empowerment Day gathers college students in New York State to advocate for budgetary support to state legislators. Even with $2.0 million being approved for state funding, the event aims to push for another $13.0 million in funding.
Cyrus Hamilton-Ferguson, assistant director of Student Disability Services, led students’ participation and organized the trip to Albany.
According to Hamilton-Ferguson, New York State hasn’t provided state-level funding specifically for college students with disabilities, and universities and colleges are respectively responsible for their student’s budgetary support. Several organizations and disability advocacy groups, including New York Coalition of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education, New York State Disability Services Council, CUNY Council on Student Disability Issue, and SUNY Student Assembly, founded the annual event to push for more voices to fill in the gap.
Hamilton-Ferguson said he first heard about the opportunity last October and thought it would be an opportunity that Cornellians definitely should not miss.
“Many [participants], including some of our students, made signs and banners to support the effort,” Hamilton-Ferguson said. “One of our students made a sign that said, ‘Disabled, not disposable.’”
With more than 300 people gathering, the size and diverse backgrounds of the participants of the rally impressed Hamilton-Ferguson.
“Our students, New York State students from two-year colleges, universities, four-year colleges, public schools, private schools [and] independent schools [all participated]… It really didn’t matter because this funding affects every single one,” Hamilton-Ferguson said. “It was amazing to see them there.”
Along with Hamilton-Ferguson and another Student Disability Services employee, two students joined the rally. As a disabled student, Kate Keresztes ’26 participated in hopes of increasing awareness of disabled people. She felt happy about meeting similar people and celebrating their shared identity, a community that Cornell greatly lacks, according to Keresztes.
“At Cornell, we really don’t see any campus highlights on disability communities or any [visible] disability community beyond what we make for ourselves,” Keresztes said. “It is really not encouraged by the college that we [are] visible and proud.”
Keresztes noted Syracuse University has better support for students.
“Syracuse University has a Disability Cultural Center, and their disability studies program goes very far for not only providing the bare minimum route to attend school, but to be able to fully participate in society and to celebrate who we are and be a significant force on campus,” Keresztes said.
According to Keresztes, the extra state funding could be used to raise awareness of the disability community at Cornell.
“[The funding] could really benefit Cornell in the way that we [develop] disabled cultural spaces and places for disabled people to meet and have social interactions outside of medicalization,” Keresztes said. “[The money] could have been impactful [if it is used] to have disabled speakers come and talk about disability studies, host events for disabled students to get together or take us on trips to places of cultural significance.”
Chris Arroyo ’24, another student participant, learned about the event from his class Labor Relations, Law and History 4033: Disability Law. As someone interested in advocating for minority groups, Arroyo thought the rally informed him a lot about how New York State legislation specifically understands disability community support.
“It was nice to just be around more people who focus on [disability support], tell stories about it and contextualize it for the legislative audience in New York state,” Arroyo said. “It was really fun to see two main assemblymen and senators focusing on [promoting support for disabled people on a state level.”
From the speeches, Hamilton-Ferguson and Arroyo both observed the common sentiment that the legislation support disability group out of economic incentive, which emphasizes that educated disabled people can become productive labor force.
Keresztes finds this narrative problematic, pointing out that the name “empowerment day” adopts similar problematic framing.
“I think that we need to challenge this paradigm that [evaluates] the wealth of a person based on your productivity,” Keresztes said. “It is important to support us not because we could be productive citizens for New York State in the future, but because we people and all people in New York State must have equal access and equal right to proper education.”
According to Hamilton-Ferguson, the exact date of Student Empowerment Day this year was confirmed in late January, which left a small time frame to plan the trip. Hamilton-Ferguson hopes for a more comprehensive program next year, taking more students and partnering with campus organizations.
“It’s for our students now. It’s also for the students who are still in high school or junior high,” Hamilton-Ferguson said. “Any student who wants an education in New York should be able to get that education.”