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UCLA Newsroom: From ankle injury to solutions champion for visible and invisible disabilities

By: Kayla McCormack

View the original article on UCLA Newsroom.

Catarina Gerges is graduating in the 3-person inaugural class of disability studies majors

When UCLA’s first-of-its-kind disability studies major launched in the fall quarter of 2023, Catarina Gerges was quick to enroll. Already minoring in disability studies and majoring in neuroscience, she had just enough room in her schedule to fulfill all credit requirements and still graduate with two majors a year ahead of schedule. This June, she’ll be one of three students graduating as the inaugural class of disability studies majors.

Gerges’ interest in disability studies was sparked after a roller-skating excursion during the winter quarter of her freshman year ended in a trip to the emergency room. With multiple torn ankle ligaments, Gerges’ mobility was severely limited. Even with crutches and support from Bruin Access, she experienced challenges navigating UCLA’s sprawling campus, including getting from her dorm on the Hill to her classes.

“That was the first time I realized how physically inaccessible our campus was,” Gerges said. “I was a little mad at myself. It took me so long and an injury of my own to realize how UCLA, an institution that is so progressive and so well-funded, is so lacking in terms of accessibility.”

Looking to expand her understanding, Gerges enrolled in a disability studies writing course, where she was asked to reflect on personal experiences.

“My mom has an invisible disability so I grew up witnessing the microaggressions she faced when trying to get accommodations,” Gerges said. “As a kid, I thought it was difficult for her because of the nature of an invisible disability — no one can see it. But through the class, I realized that this is a universal experience, invisible or visible disability.”

As part of her education, Gerges came to realize how disability studies explore social, cultural and political aspects, focusing on the lived experiences of disabled individuals and advocating for their rights and inclusion. She was inspired by how this interdisciplinary field seeks to challenge traditional perceptions and promote accessibility and equity.

In addition, Gerges’ experience interning with UCLA’s Disabilities and Computing Program emphasized the difference between accessibility and accommodation; accessibility is the idea of creating inclusive environments from the outset, while accommodation involves retrofitting specific barriers for individuals after requests or as an afterthought.

The DCP’s mission is to facilitate the integration of adaptive computing technology and ensure all digital media at UCLA is accessible, and Gerges spent her time evaluating media to ensure it met compliance standards.

“I really got to see the tangible impact of what the DCP championed for in real life,” she said. “In academia, I often discussed solutions for issues we’ve identified. But through the DCP, I was able to implement those solutions.”

Outside of the classroom, Gerges works as a resident assistant and as an accessibility engineer for UCLA’s Office of Advanced Research Computing. She is also active on campus, participating in the InterAxon Club  — which travels to underfunded K-12 schools to promote interest and curiosity about STEM fields — and the Coptic Orthodox Christian Club.

When she graduates, Gerges will be taking a gap year, pursuing internship opportunities and deciding whether she’d like to pursue any additional higher education. She hopes to combine her interests in disability studies and neuroscience.

“I hope to initiate a ripple effect and inspire others to share this knowledge until it reaches a point where widespread awareness of disability studies becomes the norm,” Gerges said.