Campus & community, People, Profiles

I’m a Berkeleyan: Staffer Ann Wai-Yee Kwong wants you to thrive

Berkeley Disability Cultural Community Center coordinator says, ‘Our hope is for students to feel accepted for all parts of themselves … not for just being disabled, but being a human being.’

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong on a hike posing next to a lustrous waterfall. on a rocky mountain

Alumni Ann Wai-Yee Kwong will lead UC Berkeley’s new Disability Community Cultural Center, and hopes to bring the leadership she has attained from her own lived experiences. (Photo courtesy of Ann Wai-Yee Kwong)

This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Ann Wai-Yee Kwong. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact [email protected].

As a child, I always knew I saw the world in a different way. Being blind gave me a rare perspective to contextualize my surroundings through a detailed lens that is often ignored.

Like feeling the wind on my face to predict oncoming weather, or listening to the sound of a waterfall to appreciate its beauty.

But I learned very early in life that these skills are not always cherished. And that society doesn’t see people with disabilities as unique contributors to the world around us. More times than not, we are seen as a hindrance. That we are not able to perform and are not expected to contribute in the same degree as others.

Through my journey as a blind first-generation Chinese American woman, I know that is not true.

For many of us, having a disability is just one part of who we are as human beings. And we are not just meant to exist in society, but we can give back to our communities if given the access and opportunities to do so.

Headshot of Ann Wai-Yee Kwong smiling

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong

As coordinator for UC Berkeley’s new Disability Cultural Community Center, my hope is to create a space that provides the necessary systems of support for students with disabilities to not just survive, but thrive, on campus and beyond.

Several years ago, I graduated from Cal with the understanding that the disability community here, like many other affinity or identity groups, is very broad. There are folks who have sensory disabilities, physical disabilities, neurodiversity, mental health and/or chronic health conditions and so on. So, your experience interacting with one disabled person may not be the same as another.

Those nuances are important to address.

The disabled community has persevered through unique barriers and challenges that we’ve had to fight and advocate for, at times, all on our own. Empathizing with the many different human stories we all have helps to broaden that understanding and reduce the stigma around the diverse community we will serve through our center.

Sharing those stories and struggles can bring more belonging and inclusivity to campus and, hopefully, more action from folks outside of the disabled community to advocate alongside us.

My story starts in Hong Kong, where my older brother and I were both born with a rare inherited eye condition — Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) — that causes severe vision loss.

I remember having to attend a specialized school for the blind that was situated on top of a retirement home for older disabled and blind adults.

It was not the most hopeful setting.

You learn here, and then someday you live downstairs, where you grow old and die, isolated from society.”

If you wanted to learn beyond the classroom, you literally just went to the library and, if you were lucky, found a nice person there to help you scan your books. Then, you could maybe read a book that day. It was very jarring.

For me, it signaled implicitly what my future was going to be: You learn here, and then someday you live downstairs, where you grow old and die, isolated from society.

So, as a child, I realized that my life, at least at the time, would have limited opportunities.

In Hong Kong, my mom worked as a line supervisor in a manufacturing factory, and my father worked at a bank. But when I was 8, my parents decided to immigrate our family to live with relatives in Los Angeles.

In the United States, we found there were safeguards and legislations to support the education of blind disabled folks, like the Americans with Disabilities Act. This was a real pivoting point in my life, because I knew that I could now access education in a different way than before.

In order to succeed, I just needed the access and opportunity to.

During high school, I got good grades with help from teachers like Mr. Cristiani, who would verbally describe what he was doing in calculus class and also record video and audio clips for blind students to review at home.

You know, when you’re blind, educators sometimes say things like, “You probably shouldn’t take Advanced Placement classes,” or, “You probably shouldn’t do X, Y and Z.” But he really believed that with appropriate support, I could do just as well as students who were not blind.

That was very empowering and refreshing to hear.

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong poses in front of her house in Los Angeles with her brother and parents after graduating from high school.

In high school, Ann Wai-Yee Kwong found it hard to advocate for herself in the classroom and still embrace her Chinese family’s values. “You’re told to respect your elders and listen to your teachers and not to challenge them.” (Photo courtesy of Ann Wai-Yee Kwong)

While I was doing well academically in high school, it was difficult making friends. While some students were having the time of their lives, I had a lot of complicated cultural-identity struggles I was dealing with.

I began to appreciate the sacrifice my parents made in leaving their careers and family for us to move to America. They didn’t speak English and had to adapt to values and a culture that was unfamiliar to them.

That was a struggle for not only them, but for me as their child.

Being Chinese American, a lot of the not-so-positive stereotypes of the “model minority” myth produce expectations that are often hard to live up to. In America, the value of self-expression, freedom of speech and challenging authority is very prevalent.

But in my experience in the Chinese community, you’re told to respect your elders and listen to your teachers and not to challenge them. Being somebody who is disabled, though, if I am not given certain accommodations that I need to perform, I need to speak up and fight for those resources.

That was a conflicting value for my parents. They did not grow up in America, but I had to navigate an educational system that did not always take my cultural and disability identities into consideration.

When do I speak up? And if speaking up meant that I would defy certain parts of my identity, should I still do so?”

I was often not sure when it was OK to advocate for myself because of that: Where do I belong? When do I speak up? And if speaking up meant that I would defy certain parts of my identity, should I still do so?

Although I respected my cultural values and family upbringing, I knew I had to advocate for myself.

When a counselor tried to discourage me from applying to Berkeley, I switched counselors and applied anyway. I remember she said, “If you go to a university, you’re going to drop out, and we don’t want you to suffer that way.”

When I came to Berkeley in 2011, my family was so proud of me.

At Berkeley, I was the first blind student to study Mandarin at the university, after I persuaded the Chinese department that blind students could learn the language.

As part of the Disabled Students Program on campus, I helped push for the purchase of a braille display for blind students to be able to tactilely read statistics data for their courses. I wrote a piece for the National Federation of the Blind entitled ‘Is Reading a Privilege?’ to advocate for further resources for braille users.

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong speaks to a U.S. senate committee advocating for benefits for disabled students.

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong’s policy advocacy for disabled students has extended all the way to the floor of the U.S. Senate floor. (Photo courtesy of Ann Wai-Yee Kwong)

In 2014, I supported legislation that would revise Social Security and health care benefits for students with disabilities. I was invited to the U.S. Senate Health Committee to testify in Washington, D.C., to share some community concerns with policymakers.

That was a very powerful experience for me, because I learned about advocacy and disability from a broader policy and political perspective. I continued to develop those skills after graduation and in the various nonprofit organizations I worked with on behalf of people with disabilities.

When I joined Berkeley’s staff last spring, I was thrilled to be able to work with the next generations of folks who are in the disability community on campus. It’s exciting to see that the number of people who self-identify as disabled on campus has grown. Just looking at some of the data, it means more folks feel comfortable identifying as disabled.

That’s a positive trend to build on.

As part of the Disability Cultural Community Center, our core values revolve around community, not compliance; education through empowerment; and collaborate and co-create.

So, I’m talking to students, learning and being empathetic to their experiences and also sharing with them my story, and how we can help co-create a campus culture and space that is inclusive to everyone’s needs.

Ann Wai-Yee Kwong smiles for a group photo with members of Berkeley's goalball team. Each team member wear a blue and white Cal jersey with a number on it. A dog wearing a jersey poses with the team as well.

As an alumni, Ann Wai-Yee Kwong said her time as a Berkeley student helps inform her work today. Here she is a few years back with Berkeley’s goalball team. (Photo courtesy of Ann Wai-Yee Kwong)

I think that’s important for students to see their campus leaders as people who have similar lived experiences. And through conversations, not only can disabled folks explore their own identity, but also empower their friends and allies to be more aware of those experiences, as well.

While the center’s physical space on campus is not quite ready yet, we are still actively hoping to collaborate with other spaces on campus so that if you’re disabled and also identify as BIPOC or additional marginalized communities, you can feel comfortable going to the different spaces and not have to pick which part of your identity to belong to.

Our hope at the center is for students to feel accepted for all parts of themselves in this space. Not for just being disabled, but being a human being with intersecting and nuanced experiences that we all can learn from.

And in that learning, and community, maybe we can all thrive together.