As a competitive athlete, David Grassi came within a fraction of a second of representing the United States at the 2012 Paralympic Games. As a coordinator of member services at University Recreation at Washington State University, Grassi has become a champion for faculty, staff and students with disabilities.
He’s actively involved in the Disabled Faculty and Staff Allies Association (DFSA), a group that is working to improve the experiences of disabled staff and faculty at WSU. Grassi attended the University of Illinois, which has some of the best facilities and resources in the country for individuals with disabilities. While there, he thrived in basketball and track, and had a rich college experience.
“Growing up and in college I didn’t really see myself differently, and I did the same things a lot of kids did,” Grassi said. “In graduate school and as I got my start in higher education, I discovered there’s a lot of stigma around disabilities. Sometimes people think if I have a physical disability, I must also have a mental disability, so breaking down those barriers is something I’ve always tried to advocate for and tried to educate people about.”
Grassi nearly earned a trip to the London Games and track and field’s grandest stage, but came up an agonizing 0.1 seconds short in the 100‑meter final at the U.S. Trials. Grassi was also in the running to make the team for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio until an injury kept him from competing at the trials.
The setbacks haven’t diminished his love of sport. He competes in basketball with ParaSport Spokane. And Grassi is starting to train on the track again, holding out hope that he could make it to the next Paralympics in Tokyo, which were pushed back to 2021 due to the COVID‑19 pandemic.
The bulk of Grassi’s time is now devoted to helping others stay active. His position at UREC keeps him around sports, working with students and inspiring active lifestyles among faculty, staff and the community.
Grassi also leads about a dozen active members of DFSA and would like to see the group grow.
“Close to 60 percent of disabilities are not visible to most people, so we want to be a resource for everyone,” Grassi said. “A lot of our members are in Student Affairs, but we want to branch out. Maybe those that don’t identify as having a disability can advocate and share their knowledge with the University community.”
Grassi says many people are fearful of disclosing a disability due to the stigma that is sometimes attached. The DFSA group provides organizational support, but perhaps more importantly, a community of support.
“Saying you have a disability can hurt you in some situations, whether it’s a learning disability, or whatever it may be,” he said. “WSU has the Access Center, the ADA Coordinator, Human Resource Services that are all great resources, and navigating all of that can be kind of terrifying. DFSA is important because we’re able to talk with people who have the same passion and the same experiences. We’re also friends outside the work environment.”