Disability Rights Advocate: Paula Davis

By Megan Marmol

Paula K. Davis, M.A., is Assistant Vice Chancellor for Diversity for the University of Pittsburgh’s Schools of the Health Sciences. Davis assumed her current position after serving as Assistant Dean in the School of Medicine with responsibility for Admissions, Financial Aid and Diversity Programs. Prior to her time in Admissions, Davis served as Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Director of Diversity Programs. Ms. Davis has spent the past thirty years working in student support services including admissions, academic advising, alumni relations, financial aid and minority support services. Her experiences include work in pre-college, undergraduate, graduate and health professions education. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh (BA, English; MA, Communications), Davis served as director of admissions for Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management before joining Pitt Med in 1994. Davis serves on the boards of the FISA Foundation and North Side Christian Health Center, and is an advocate for autism research and education.


How has the ADA impacted you personally and the work you do (professionally)? 

The ADA has provided a tool with which to support individuals who live with differing abilities. It has provided the base from which to approach instances where they are being excluded or experiencing discrimination, enabling us to motivate others to look beyond the bounds of the typical, not just because inclusion and providing reasonable accommodation is the right thing to do, but because it is the law. The ADA has allowed opportunities for students who would have traditionally been excluded from certain educational avenues, to engage fully and pursue careers to the extent of their aspirations.  Personally, the ADA has been a boon in my own child’s life. My son is on the autism spectrum and he has required a range of supports and accommodations to achieve a comfortable range of functioning. That he cannot, by law, be discriminated against or excluded provided our family a confidence from which to approach the search for resources to support his needs. Without the ADA, I can’t imagine how much more difficult his life would have been and be. He is now working in the community (and starting college). Without the ADA, I am certain he would not be living with the level of independence he enjoys today.


What impact do you see the ADA has on your local community?

The ADA has increased accessibility such that individuals with disabilities can participate more fully in the community. Accessible public transportation and seating has made a world of difference, as has the advent of “sensory friendly” performances.   Admission of service animals has allowed individuals with a broad range of disabilities to navigate the community and not only enjoy cultural and sporting events, but to also participate in local government. It has allowed quantum leaps in self-advocacy.


What is one area you identify still needs improved upon?

In Pittsburgh, we still need help with infrastructure. There are streets in the city where the sidewalks are not at all passable for wheelchairs and I see individuals of all ages using wheelchairs and scooters in the street because the sidewalks are treacherous. As an old city, Pittsburgh has terrain and real estate that are next to impossible for those who have challenges with mobility.


What do you want people with and without disabilities to know about your work/organization?

I would like for them to know that the University of Pittsburgh has had a long history of working to provide access to all. We may not be perfect yet, but it’s a benchmark for which we will continue to strive.


One all encompassing statement that summarizes the evolution of the passage of the ADA (the past, present, and future).

The ADA marked a departure from warehousing and isolating individuals with disabilities, to recognizing and galvanizing their civil rights – the right to live fully as citizens in our country and communities. As PWD continue to challenge boundaries, the ADA will evolve to continue the protection it provides to all.

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