I Am Not Defined: new student podcast encourages students to re-think what they know about disability

DePaul junior Katie Holloway was wading into the depth of another sleepless night when the phrase ‘I am not defined’ came to her. 

“It was 4 o’clock one morning and I couldn’t sleep because my hips were being irritated, and I was on my phone thinking of titles [for the podcast] and came up with “I Am Not Defined,” Holloway said. 

Holloway’s restless inspiration would take center stage in the following weeks when Disability at DePaul, a student-led group created through the University’s Academic Growth and Innovation Fund (AGIF), unveiled their latest project. 

The podcast “I Am Not Defined,” hosted by Holloway and DePaul junior Emma Salgado-Diaz, released its first full-length episode last Friday, highlighting a conversation with T.C. Schneck, the associate director for DePaul’s Center for Students with Disabilities.

For Holloway, the podcast was more than a way of starting the conversation regarding accessibility and equity for disabled students at DePaul. It stood as a challenge against the harmful characterizations that have plagued marginalized communities for too long.

“If you think about it, a lot of communities deal with labels, and in the disability community, we always tend to be faced with labels,” Holloway said. “As a person who’s been mostly labeled all her life, I am not defined by what the labels are.”

DePaul public policy professor and former supervisor of Disability at DePaul Kelly Tzoumis pitched the idea for the podcast during spring quarter last year. It took almost two months of planning to get the podcast up and running. 

“Kelly was the one who originally created AGIF, and she was doing research and found that more people are into podcasts,” Holloway said. “When she was my old employer, she wanted to have a podcast built into AGIF so that those who don’t have social media can tune in and hear what resources DePaul has to offer.” 

As of 2022, 37% of Americans listen to at least one podcast per month, a 5% increase from 2019, making it one of the fastest-growing forms of entertainment.

The uniqueness of “I Am Not Defined” resides within the formulation of each episode. Where some shows stick to a repetitive format, “I Am Not Defined” delivers its content through a combination of interviews with members of the DePaul community, segments on the history of activism within the disabled community and accessibility on campus.

“The first episode was the trailer, and from the trailer we went with interviewing T.C., [who] was the new. . .head of CSD,” Holloway said. “The next episode is going to be the history behind the capital call, and the 504 sit-in, and its importance, followed by our reaction to it and how we personally feel.”

For co-host Salgado-Diaz, the podcast was a way to bridge the gap between incoming students and those with more knowledge and experience on campus. 

“When I first joined the team in March, they had talked about being more involved when it came to student engagement, more involved in talking to students and finding platforms to make it very much student led, so incoming students as well as current DePaul students know that they can come to students instead of feeling overwhelmed with professionals,” Salgado-Diaz said. 

While Salgado-Diaz herself is not disabled, she is no stranger to witnessing the hardships the community faces. 

“You can very much hear Katie open up about her experiences with disability, and [my outside] perspective, because I have a disabled father and my brother is autistic,” Salgado-Diaz said. “Though I do not have a disability, I have always been surrounded by people who do and can see how unaccommodating the world can be.”

Since the first episode aired, Salgado-Diaz remained steadfast in the podcast’s primary goal of starting the conversation on accessibility at DePaul.

“I feel like starting the conversation is having a platform to start it,” Salgado Diaz said. “At the end of the day, you can always start a conversation, but if nobody is saying anything out loud, then nothing will be accomplished.”

Highlighted throughout the first episode was the perception of equity for disabled students and the importance of understanding the purpose of academic accommodations.

“Accommodations are not advantages,” Salgado Diaz said. “People like to assume – like T.C. said in the interview – that you could give me more time in a math test, but if I don’t know math, I’m still not passing.”

While the podcast is still in its infancy, its themes of perspective, community and education invite listeners to challenge their biases and understand that individuals are not defined by their disability.

“I will never experience what my father experiences or my brother, but what I can do is learn my part and use my voice to advocate with them,” Salgado-Diaz said. 

Tzoumis explains her inspiration behind the idea of a podcast.

“As part of our research we did find that high school students and transfer students were listening to more and more podcasts,” Tzoumis said. 

Tzoumis, alongside Driehaus College of Business instructor Kent Klaus, led AGIF through phases one and two of the grant, which they used to reach out and enlist future disabled students to attend DePaul. 

“I hope, and this was the goal of AGIF and now CSD, that we reach out to students outside of DePaul and that the high school and transfer students know that DePaul is a place that they can come to and be supported,” Tzoumis said.

Schneck, also assistant director at the Center for Students with Disabilities, expressed his excitement for overseeing Disability at DePaul’s progress alongside the growth of “I Am Not Defined.”

“I’m more of an adviser to them, just having somebody who they can run their content through for feedback and suggestions,” Schneck said. 

Schneck participated in the first episode of the podcast as an interviewee, answering questions relating to how students can apply to receive accommodations and the difference between equality and equity.

“While they don’t work for CSD and are not part of CSD, their hope is to get the word out to students with disabilities inside DePaul and outside of DePaul that DePaul is an option and DePaul can accommodate students who have different disabilities,” Schneck said. 

New episodes of “I Am Not Defined” will be released every Friday and are available on Spotify and on Disability at DePaul’s website, with transcripts of the episodes. 

Connect with Lilly Keller: @lillyraek | [email protected]