From taking her stand as a six-year-old poster child for polio, to publishing a national magazine devoted to disability issues, Cyndi Jones, Revelle ’74, has spent her life fighting for the rights of people with disabilities.
Many who devote their lives to social justice can point to a definitive moment when the need to stand up to inequality became saliently apparent. Not so many can say they experienced such a moment at the age of six, but for Cyndi Jones, Revelle ’74, a first-grade classroom would prove to be her first touch with the harsh reality of discrimination.
Jones contracted infantile paralysis, or polio, at the age of two. As a young girl in St. Louis, Mo., she was selected to be the March of Dimes poster child in the region. Jones remembers the excitement of being the young girl on crutches waving from parade floats and featured on local billboards. Throughout the 1950s, hers was the smiling face meant to open people’s eyes to polio. Yet when the organization’s mission moved from polio fundraising to vaccination, just the reverse occurred—Jones’ eyes were opened to the prevailing attitudes that she and other people with disabilities faced.
“I was in class and a new poster was being distributed,” Jones says. “They used a photo of a couple of kids running through a field, then a photo of me in a party dress. Over their picture it said ‘THIS,’ and over my picture it said ‘NOT THIS.’ I wanted to crawl under my desk.” Jones went home that day with an acute sense of being wronged, and more importantly, the resolve to do something about it. “I told my mom that the March of Dimes cannot use my photos anymore,” she recalls. “That’s when I realized how society viewed disability. That’s when I became an advocate.”
What reads like a tragic instance in the life of a young girl would only be Jones’ first brush with the social injustices she would spend her life fighting against. Upon moving to San Diego, Jones was not admitted into her neighborhood school, but was bussed across the county to a school for children with disabilities. This was before legislation such as PL 94-142 and Section 504 prohibited discrimination, and Jones acknowledges the opportunities afforded to her even before Section 504 passed in 1973. “UCSD didn’t have to accept me, either,” Jones says. “I’m lucky that I was already enrolled in college even before I had the right to attend.”
Even though she was admitted to UC San Diego, a lack of accessibility and accommodation at the time ultimately took a substantial toll on her education. Using crutches to navigate a growing campus in the 1960s was not easy. “I always had to choose my classes based on where they were located, not who was teaching them,” Jones says. The distance from her dorm to educational facilities proved to be a major obstacle; her inability to travel to Geisel Library—then known as the “not-so” Central Library—impacted the quality of her classwork. “It was exhausting trying to make it to classes. I was always late, and I was tired by the time I got there. But back then, the sentiment was ‘If you can’t do it, you can’t do it.’” Finally, during her senior year, she faced a nearly impossible circuit in order to take courses required to complete her degree in biology.
“I had to take three core classes that were back-to-back. The first was in Revelle 2722, the second over in Muir, and then back to 2722. I really couldn’t do it on crutches, so I asked the dean if she could hold all three classes in Revelle. She said, ‘Well, that would involve moving 500 students,’ and I replied, ‘Yes, and they would probably love you for it!’” Her request ultimately denied, Jones had no other option but to put her studies on hold. She left the university that quarter, six courses shy of graduating.
“Not having my accommodations met was just a fact of life in those days,” Jones says. “And it hardened me in understanding that you have to fight for what you want.” After a stint teaching public school in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Jones eventually would return to finish her coursework and earn her degree in biology with a minor in religious studies in 1974. But the understanding she developed, along with the will to fight, would soon prove to have as much relevance in her professional life as a formal education.
Soon after graduation, Jones was faced with a unique opportunity incidentally afforded to her by the very discrimination she faced in her elementary school days. “When they sent us all to a special school, they didn’t realize they were giving us the opportunity to organize and later create change,” she jokes, referring to the old friends who contacted her to help launch Mainstream Magazine, a California-based publication devoted to disability issues. Jones joined the magazine’s staff and started out doing anything the magazine required, from fundraising to design and editorial work, all in an era before computers changed everything.
“It was all on carbon-based type,” she remembers. “If you touched it the words would smear, so we had to use hairspray to stabilize it. So much of the process was manual; publishing was truly hands-on in those days.”
But Mainstream was far more than words on paper. In the days before email, the magazine was an important means of organizing and informing the public when the fight for disability rights was at a fever pitch from the ’70s through the ’90s. “Our magazine was a connection for people to be aware and get involved,” says Jones. “We created some of the change and we kept the movement moving.” Jones admits there was a blurry line in being a disability rights journalist and disability rights activist; during a time when legislation was being passed yet there was little enforcement to see it through, covering the many sit-ins, marches and protests eventually meant participating in them as well.
Jones would eventually become publisher of Mainstream, and she freely highlights the role her education played in running every aspect of the publication. “Revelle teaches you to be a renaissance scholar,” Jones says. “When you’re a small publisher within a staff of only five, you have to be able to edit, hire and fire, do the books, understand advertising and sales and think of stories people would be interested in reading about. I needed the skills to keep all those balls in the air, and the Revelle renaissance philosophy was important in prepping me to do that.”
As Mainstream’s publisher, Jones was a key influencer of not only public opinion, but public policy. Leading up to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Jones and other disability journalists were invited to interview then President George H.W. Bush. With each reporter allowed just one question, Jones went off-script from a prepared question to instead ask about improving collaboration between government agencies with regards to disability issues. Hers was one of the only questions to get a significant response from the president, and the result four years later was a book-length report titled Enabling America. “They had gone through all the committee work, all the research, and had come out with the book. That was the answer to my question.”
Jones was then invited back to the White House signing ceremony for the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. With last year marking the ADA’s 25th anniversary, Jones and three other individuals were featured in a commemorative exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution highlighting leaders of the disability community and honoring the collective effort to ensure equal opportunity and prohibit disability discrimination.
Read Jones’ question and the president’s response on the official transcripts
Along with a career pushing for broad change in national policy, Jones also strove to help others on a much more personal level, one that would bring her back to UC San Diego more than 30 years after she had to halt her studies. In 2004, Jones developed What’s Next?, a mentoring program that brought together young people with physical disabilities and paired them with adult mentors with similar limitations. “We wanted these kids to see how someone facing their particular challenges could succeed,” Jones says. A summer residential component of the program brought mentors and mentees to the UC San Diego campus for a week, where hands-on tips were shared for strategically navigating the 1,200 acre university.
Jones views this sort of personal outreach as integral to perpetuate what she’s spent her life fighting for. “The activist work lays the foundation for the personal work,” she says. “Unless people utilize the access, it disappears. If we don’t get jobs, if we don’t go to college, it will go away.”
Be it through impact in the political arena or a personal touch to find the strength within, Jones believes that success for people with disabilities is success for people in general. The fight is never over, and according to Jones, it’s a fight that all should take part in. “Everyone will be disabled if you live long enough,” says Jones. “When you do something for disability rights, you’re really doing something for yourself.”
New Era of Access
A lack of accommodation in 1973 led Cyndi Jones to put her studies on hold, but times have certainly changed for those with disabilities on campus. Every year more than 500 undergraduate, graduate and professional school students with physical limitations, chronic health issues, or psychological and learning disabilities utilize resources from the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). From academic to housing accommodations, the OSD ensures the availability of transport and educational resources for those who need assistance.
“UC San Diego has the resources and creativity to address issues of physical and technological access for people with disabilities in ways that are new and exciting,” says OSD Director Joanna Boval. “We are committed to including disability/ability into our larger conversations about diversity and inclusion, which enhances the university experience for everyone.
In addition to the OSD, the university’s ADA Title II Committee pushes for campuswide disability accommodation, such as installing automatic doors, and affecting other physical improvements to campus.
Open to anyone interested in disability issues, Community Advocates for Disability Rights and Education (CADRE) promotes full inclusion and equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
For staff and faculty with disabilities, DisABility Counseling and Consulting (DCC) is responsible for providing disability management and job accommodation consultation services.
The Students with Disabilities Coalition (SDC) is a social and support network with a mission to assert that all students with disabilities are unique and bring rich experiences to the UCSD community.