I am over the moon…

This is a thought that Mario, in white tails and tux, might be entertaining near the end of Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey video game as he gazes lovingly at his bride-to-be, Princess Peach. And this is what Elizabeth McLain, winner of the Sally Bohland Award for Exceptional Leadership in Access and Inclusion, thought upon receiving this honor.  

Although enthusiastic about the award, the instructor of musicology in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts also had another memory in mind. In it, she is back at the University of Michigan, where she received her master’s degree and is currently finishing her doctorate. She and a friend are playing the Mario adventure and together they beat the game. For McLain, the recollection brings pure joy: She was not just having a Nintendo experience; she was copiloting it. 

“I was part of an adaptive gaming initiative that partnered with disabled volunteers, like me, to co-create innovative solutions to allow us to play games on computers, Nintendo Switch, and other systems,” she said. “One of my favorite approaches was to copilot, which involved splitting up the controls that would normally be handled by one gamer so two or more people could work together. 

“I would control Mario’s running and the camera, while my friend would use buttons connected to a Microsoft adaptive controller to make the character jump, throw his hat, or do any other number of things. Not only did this allow us to play a game that would have been otherwise inaccessible to us, but it was far more fun than playing alone or as two separate characters. And yes, we actually beat the game this way!” 

When McLain, who earned bachelor’s degrees in music and history from Virginia Tech in 2010, joined the School of Performing Arts faculty, she brought with her a wealth of knowledge about working with and for the disability community. These experiences helped lead to her receiving the Sally Bohland Award. This annual Services for Students with Disabilities honor goes to a Virginia Tech faculty member who serves as a model for others in the areas of access, accessibility, and inclusion of students with disabilities.

“Elizabeth’s passion for advocacy for people with disabilities  was obvious to me even before she joined our faculty,” said Jason Crafton, an associate professor of trumpet and chair of music faculty. “In the time she’s been here at Virginia Tech, she’s served as a wonderful advocate for our students and a great resource for her colleagues.” 

McLain’s advocacy reaches far and wide within the campus community. She incorporates inclusive pedagogy and universal design for learning into her classes, adding inclusive disability to the curriculum where appropriate. She has also created a new disability culture course.

Outside the classroom, she is a co-chair of the university’s Disability Alliance and Caucus. She serves on the diversity committees of both the School of Performing Arts and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and she is a member of the provost’s Accessibility and Accommodations Working Group. In addition, she was the site coordinator for the 2020 Disability Day of Mourning and coordinated an online vigil on March 1, 2021.

Off campus, she is on the Board of Directors for the New River Valley Disability Resource Center and the new Michigan Adaptive Sports and Inclusive Recreation Initiative. She also serves as secretary for the American Musicological Society’s Music and Disability Study Group. 

“I’m carving out a new role as access advocate for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences,” she said. “I do a lot of off-the-record advocacy: helping students with disability-related questions and challenges, connecting faculty with resources, checking in on staff members.” 

She said she wants others to understand the mindset and the realities of what life is like for those with disabilities, as well as the complexities of navigating the higher education environment. Mentoring others toward this awareness is an essential part of leading the disability community.

Her pursuits have included organizing virtual gaming, watch parties, and social events to help those within the disability community stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. She hosted two virtual screenings of the documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” one of which featured a live question-and-answer session with disability rights activist Judy Heumann. 

McLain served as a panelist for the Virginia Tech Choices and Challenges Forum and a webinar for Guardian Life employees and clients about embracing disability wisdom during the COVID-19 pandemic. She consults on disability representation and inclusion in the media. She also leads workshops on disability as diversity and universal design for learning in the performing arts. 

But it was when McLain brought representatives from Disability Culture at the University of Michigan to Virginia Tech for an adaptive gaming workshop that Martina Svyantek, a student in the doctoral interdisciplinary program, was inspired to nominate her for the Bohland award.

“Having Elizabeth be part of the Disability Alliance and Caucus community helped to broaden our organization’s relationships, both on and off campus,” Svyantek said. “We now have a relationship with folks from the University of Michigan, who traveled to campus in 2020 to join us for an adaptive gaming event. This experience was full of technology and techniques to make gaming more accessible and fun for a wide range of people. It has also spurred us to connect with each other digitally as opposed to in person.”

McLain said it was an honor to receive such a distinction from Services for Students with Disabilities, which uplifts the work those in the disabled community do to create inclusive spaces and create access for themselves and others. It is uncommon, she added, for access-related awards at similar institutions to acknowledge the disabled who do such labor, as recognition often goes to able-bodied “helpers,” “professionals,” or family members. 

“No matter how difficult 2020 became, the thing that consistently got me out of bed was the opportunity to serve my community,” McLain said. “At Virginia Tech, we have an incredible team of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and community members who sacrifice their time and energy every day to create the kind of inclusion they want to achieve, and I’d like to redirect the focus to them. 

“It is a whole other level of courage to leverage any bit of success you achieve in an ableist world to lift others up, fight for access you didn’t get, and hold on to hope that you will create a radically inclusive community.”

Written by Leslie King