Students with disabilities invite others to walk “In Our Shoes”

A panel of students with disabilities spoke to an audience of approximately 100 students, faculty and staff about their challenges and barriers to learning and living on a college campus. The “In Our Shoes” event, sponsored by the Disabilities Resource Center (DRC), featured the voices of seven individuals who have thrived at Cabrini, thanks to accommodations they receive.

The event, which took place on Thursday, Oct. 10 at 12:30 p.m. in Grace Hall, allowed the audience to ask the panelists questions to foster awareness about disabilities, the law protecting students with disabilities and the services Cabrini provides. Kathy Johnson, Director of the DRC, moderated the panel discussion.

The “In Our Shoes”panelists getting situated a few minutes before the panel begins. From left to right: Junior Tyler Seabrook, senior Michelle Guerin, sophomore Mike Firuta, senior Selena Scialfa, junior Emily Kreiswirth, senior Ryan Berry, and freshman Thomas Ryan. Photo by Leo Melancon.

“You don’t know what someone’s experiencing until you walk in their shoes,” Johnson said.

Johnson explained the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a 1990 civil rights law that requires colleges and universities who receive federal funding to provide “reasonable accommodations” to students if they have a disability.  

Covered disabilities include learning disabilities such as dyslexia, which affects reading; dyscalculia, which affects math ability; and dysgraphia, which affects writing. Other examples are neurological disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder; psychological conditions such as anxiety disorder and depression; and physical disabilities such as hearing or visual impairments, mobility challenges and chronic medical conditions.

“Based on the intake session we have with the student. . .we discuss what barriers to learning may exist at Cabrini, for them either in the classroom or outside the classroom, even the residence hall,” Johnson said.  “So the accommodation is meant to remove a barrier for them.”

When students disclose and document their disability with the DRC, they receive a Verified Individualized Services and Accommodations letter, or VISA. They can present the VISA to their professors if they want to use any of their accommodations, but they don’t have to use it, and they don’t have to disclose their specific disability. The process is confidential, and accommodations are based on each student’s needs and barriers.

Panelist Emily Kreiswirth, a junior special education major, receives accommodations for generalized anxiety disorder, including testing outside the classroom, breaks in class as needed and permission to have an emotional support animal on campus.

“If I am having an anxiety attack, I am allowed to leave and go to the DRC,” Krieswirth said. “I am allowed to use extra time to calm myself down and then take the test.”

Panelist Mike Firuta, a sophomore communications major, deals with an auditory disability, as well as several learning and social disabilities. In addition to testing accommodations, he also has help with class notes.

“I do struggle with notes during class,” Firuta said. “I’ll leave class with a few blank spaces or pages. So I have a peer note-taker to help fill in the gaps.”

Other accommodations mentioned by the panelists include housing in a single room, recording lectures, captioning videos and audio versions of textbooks.

“Accommodations are not meant to guarantee success in a class,” Johnson said.  “They guarantee access to learning.”

The DRC plays a key role in connecting students to resources that address individual needs. Not only does the DRC offer distraction-free space for testing, the DRC helps students with assistive technology, audio textbooks, specialized software, microphones for professors to us, adjustable desks for wheelchair users and meetings with staff members who help them develop time management and self-advocacy skills. In a typical week, approximately 50 students use the DRC for testing and meet with  DRC staff for support.

Over 250 undergraduate students are registered with the DRC annually, roughly 15-18 percent of the student population, compared to the national average of 9 percent, according to Johnson. Many of the panelists cited Cabrini’s reputation for supporting students with special needs as the main reason they chose to attend.

Panelist Michelle Guerin, a senior digital communications major with an auditory processing disorder, explained why Cabrini was the winner for her.

”Going through the college process of just picking out what each college provides, Cabrini was definitely one of the top ones, having one of the strongest programs,” Guerin said.

All of the panelists chose to disclose their disabilities to the DRC, but many other students do not. The good news is that students can choose to come forward at any time in their college career.

The DRC staff, from left to right: Kathy Johnson, Sara Farina, Karen Becker, Emilee Timbario, Amanda Heflin. Not pictured is new member Amy Wroblewski. Photo courtesy of Kathy Johnson.

“I think sometimes there’s a stigma for people that have disabilities,” Emilee Timbario, DRC Accommodations Coordinator, said. “I would just explain to them that they should be a self-advocate and to ask for whatever they need to succeed, and that there is no shame in asking for help when you need it.” 

The fear of stigma is a strong reason students with disabilities keep silent about their challenges. Panelist Ryan Berry, a senior communications major on the autism spectrum, admits he rarely shares his challenges with fellow students.

“It can be very uncomfortable. I see it as an excuse to kind of do less work than other people, so I just try to hide it and just try to do as much as I can,” Berry said.

Panelist Thomas Ryan, a freshman Spanish and social work major, has a different perspective.

“One thing that I’ve definitely learned dealing with a disability is, it’s okay to be different, but it’s not okay to be treated differently. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m different,” said Ryan. “[Many people] are going to use that against you…but my advice is to let them because it’s only going to make you a better person, just do your best to fit into your standards and not let anyone change you.”

Johnson thanked all the panelists for their courage and candor in speaking at “In Our Shoes,” and concluded that students who use the DRC are not all that different from their peers.

“The term ‘learning disability’ implies that the student can’t learn, which is not the case,” Johnson said. “They can learn, they just need to learn differently.”

The DRC is located in Founder’s Hall next to Cav’s Corner. Hours are Monday-Thursday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.