New Director of UCI’s Disability Center: Karen Andrews

By Sebastian Suarez

Photo Courtesy of Sebastian Suarez

A blissful smile spreads across her cheeks and exposes perfectly bright teeth, and a pair of blue-framed glasses grant her clear vision. Her name is Karen Andrews. She recently came to California from Alaska, where she spent three years as the director of Disability Support Services at the University of Alaska, Anchorage (UAA). Wearing a grey jacket over her newly acquired UCI polo, she sits behind her desk in the director’s office at the UCI Disability Services Center.

An adventurer since birth, as her mother declared, Andrews had always dreamed about living in the feral Alaska portrayed in Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” When the applications for a position at UAA opened, she said to herself, “I never wanted to lead a boring life,” and the possibility of living in the place she had dreamed of became a reality. For Andrews, Alaska not only represents a beautiful landscape that can  “immediately take your breath away,” but much more than that; it is a diverse place where “it’s OK to be different. Everybody is different in Alaska,” she said serenely.

“I don’t like to be bored” is the mantra that has guided Andrews throughout her life. Despite moving to UCI and changing Alaskan bears for SoCal raccoons and squirrels as recurrent campus fauna, her adventurous personality remains intact. From Irvine, she explained, “I can go to San Diego or Los Angeles within an hour, and the beach is really close. You can actually swim in this ocean, whereas in Alaska you don’t really swim unless you want to get hypothermia.”

However, Irvine’s relative proximity to Arizona, where her son lives, was one of the reasons, besides the obvious prestige of the university, that Andrews decided to come to UCI.

The daughter of a Native American social worker mother and an African American special educator father, Andrews was  a child during the Civil Rights Movement. She has been involved in social justice since the age of five. She would recall that “all my immediate and extended family were involved in the Civil Rights Movement.” Some were even Freedom Riders. In 1961, one event would shape her personality and resolution to help people.

President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” a sentence that would constantly remind her of the importance of her work hin make a more just and equal society.

Andrews said of her plans to aid students with disabilities on campus, “I want to create awareness,” an initiative much needed on campus because there are still many stereotypes about disabled people. They are labeled as broken, and for that reason, a worried Andrews said,  “Many students don’t want to reveal that they are disabled because of previous bad experiences when requesting special accommodation, or they fear discrimination.”

She is determined to eliminate stereotypes.Being the first woman of color to attend an all-white school in a post-Brown v. Board of Education Delaware, Andrews knows firsthand what is to live in a hostile and unforgiving environment. “I got called the N-word everyday, for years,” she said, and once, when she was entering a restaurant with her white friends, “they tried to make me sit in an old beat-up booth in the back of the restaurant, while my friends were sitting in nice stools in the main area.”

However, she sat whenever she wanted, because she knew that no one could limit her or any other person, and that no one should be treated as lesser because of  who they are.

 Her parents motivated her to help people with disabilities. Her mother was deaf, and her father, who played Negro league baseball with a limp, always used to tell her “you can do whatever you want, you can be whatever you want, you can go wherever you want, as long as work for it.” They succeeded in life despite their limitations, and that is a valuable lesson that Andrews intends to apply here at UCI.  

Her experiences and knowledge from the Civil Rights Movement combined with her adventurous personality and passion to help disabled students become successful like her parents led her to say, “Society has made people believe disabled people are broken, when society is broken. Because something is one way doesn’t mean I have to accept it. ”