Grad student Leonard Blades to continue advocacy in third term as CCSD chair

Leonard Blades
Leonard Blades
Leonard Blades

Few students have had a bigger impact at CUNY SPS than Leonard Blades. Since enrolling in 2016 to obtain an MS in Disability Services in Higher Education, he has co-founded the CUNY SPS Student Association and the Disability and Access Coalition (DAC), two of the most active student groups at CUNY SPS.

Seven years later, Blades is pursuing his MA in Disability Studies at CUNY SPS, and continues to be highly involved with the school. Although this is Blades’s sixth term as a Student Association representative, it’s his first as co-chair, serving alongside Co-Chair Lennyn Jacob.

Most recently, Blades was elected chairperson of the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD) for the third time, where he advocates for the more than 10,000 students with disabilities in the CUNY system. Blades is appreciative and honored to serve in the role, he said.

“It means a lot,” Blades explained. “It really, really does, because just in general, when you get elected for a position, it means something because it’s your peers who are making the choice to vote for you and say, ‘Hey, you know what? We trust that this guy is the best person for the job. We believe he’s going to do great things and serve in that role, and that he’s going to do right in being able to serve the best interests of whatever population it may be.’ And in my case, it would be the students with disabilities throughout CUNY.”

The CCSD, a coalition of student organizations protecting the rights of students with disabilities, aims to increase awareness, opportunity, and foster community for students with disabilities. The coalition meets regularly virtually and in person to discuss political action, and has secured millions in funding for students from the state legislature. On the community building front, the CCSD hosts everything from movie to bingo nights, as well as CCSD mixers to allow students to get to know one another, Blades said.

As chairperson, Blades plans to keep the CCSD involved in Albany and in conferences to help spread awareness and raise more funding for the group. The CCSD intends to present at the 2024 CUNY Accessibility Conference, Blades noted. The CCSD also plans to secure more funding from state legislators on February 26, 2024, known as Student Empowerment Day, in partnership with the New York State Disability Services Council (NYSDSC).

Funding is crucial mainly because enrollment of students with disabilities at CUNY SPS continues to grow each year, though funding remains flat without advocacy work, Blades added.

“We’re going to be rallying, we’re going to be going up to Albany, and we’re going to be spreading the word and recruiting folks to join us,” he said. “And we’re going to try to have as many students, staff, faculty, alumni, whoever wants to join us for that day to advocate along with us about the need for additional funding for disability services.”

Blades first visited Albany to fundraise for CUNY’s disability services in 2021, when legislators committed to setting aside $2 million for programs. Before that, disability services had not seen an increase in funding since the 1993-94 academic year. Since the CCSD began advocating in earnest, however, funding has steadily increased, Blades said. CUNY, for its own part, has been supportive of students with disabilities overall, he remarked.

“[When it comes to] students with disabilities, there are a number of different types of disabilities, which means that every student’s needs are not going to be the same,” he said. “I’d say for the most part, that CUNY is doing the best that they’re able to, in being able to provide reasonable accommodations and services to our students.”

Aside from his work with the CCSD and CUNY SPS, Blades also serves as the vice chair for Disability Affairs for the University Student Senate (USS), the university-wide group that represents the more than 500,000 students throughout CUNY. He also works at Queensborough Community College (QCC) in their Office of Accessibility Services (OAS) as the Disability Accommodation Specialist, and serves as a co-advisor for the CCSD@QCC club, a chapter of the CCSD.

Blades’s own physical disability means that his primary way of getting around is in a motorized wheelchair. Despite this, Blades’s positivity and enthusiasm for his work is infectious, and it comes as no surprise that his energy has garnered praise from anyone who has spoken about him at CUNY SPS. Part of Blades’s motivation, he said, comes from a motto his father would tell him growing up: “Never settle for less. Always strive to be your best.”

“My advice to any SPS student is to take a chance and be a part of a community that is very much inclusive to its students,” Blades added. “Both within New York City, outside of New York, we have a number of amazing professors who are great at what they do in terms of teaching. Our staff here at SPS, Student Life and Disability Services, and just everybody here really does a great job in terms of trying to connect students to the services and supports needed and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to thrive here at SPS, because of the support I received.”

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