Friday, February 26, 2010

Dartmouth University students with disabilities discuss their experiences

From The Dartmouth:

Six Dartmouth students personally affected by disabilities told their stories to an audience of students and faculty during a panel discussion held on Thursday, “Managing Disabilities and Health Issues at Dartmouth.” The panelists urged community members to begin constructive dialogue about physical and mental disabilities to achieve wider understanding and combat the stigma that prevents students from seeking accommodations for their disabilities.

Access By Leadership in Equity, a new student organization that works to raise awareness about students with disabilities, led the event, which was moderated by Student Body President Frances Vernon ’10.

Students feel insecure about seeking help from on-campus resources, panelists said, citing a nationwide and school-wide “culture of intensity” that discourages students from asking for help.

Students should take advantage of the support services at Dartmouth, panelists said.

“We are a smaller college and for that reason we have such a sense of community,” Vernon said. “We’re meant to be a support system for each other. No one will get through this life alone, and no one should.”

Panelists encouraged students to go out of their way to reach out to students with disabilities.

“I thought I had to be 100 percent self-sufficient,” said Stewart Gray ’11, who was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder reactive arthritis last spring. “This led me to withdraw from friends because I refused to show any signs of weakness, but I had really great friends who where there to tell me exactly what I needed to hear. Sometimes you just need someone there to understand what you’re going through.”

Gray suffered extreme pain and physical limitations when he first started experiencing symptoms, at times skipping meals and trying to disguise his limp, he said.

“It was the most difficult and challenging thing I’ve ever faced in my life,” Gray said. “It changed my outlook on Dartmouth’s accessibility and handling life’s problems.”

Although Gray has not experienced difficulties receiving academic accommodations from professors, he said that after talking with fellow students his experience appears to be “largely the exception, not the rule.”

Many students perceive accommodations for students with disabilities as an “unfair leg-up” and a social stigma becomes associated with having a disability, Gray said. He said he had often personally felt students with disabilities received special treatment before he developed reactive arthritis.

Panelist Rebecca Gotlieb ’12, who organized the panel and co-founded ABLE, lives with five different learning disabilities, including reading and writing issues.

Frustration drove Gotlieb to hide her disability until two years ago, when she sought testing and received a diagnosis for her learning disabilities, she said.

“A sense of secrecy [drove me to hide my disability] in order to get the results I wanted and were expected of me,” Gotlieb said. “I was frustrated because of that disconnect between what I had learned and what I could show I had learned.”

After her diagnosis, she received learning accommodations that helped her bridge this gap, she said.

“When I received the accommodations I needed, it was an incredible weight off my shoulder,” Gotlieb said.

Panelist Jon Greig ’12 joked about his personal experience with stuttering, drawing laughter from the audience.

Greig has used Shakespearian theater as a way to cope with his disability since his participation in a third-grade play.

A fear of being judged and made fun of held Greig back during high school until he joined the Our Time Theater Company, an organization that works with people who stutter, he said.

“I found out everyone from James Earl Jones to Joe Biden had a stutter,” Greig said. “That’s pretty cool, now I’m in the same category as them.”

Greig eventually found a group of friends at Dartmouth who appreciate him and “looked past [his] stutter.”

“Just because of my stutter, my words aren’t any less valuable than yours,” Greig said. “I’m not saying anything less important, so I deserve the same attention and respect.”

Greig advised community members to actively listen to others despite speech disabilities.

“I try to live my life by never not doing something because of my stutter, and to always live like I didn’t have one,” Greig said. “Like I was just like you.”

Joe Tracy ’12 described growing up with an autistic younger brother.

One in every 110 American children is currently diagnosed with autism, a statistic that increases every year as autism is better understood, Tracy said.

Since middle school, Tracy’s brother has suffered from bullying, Tracy said. Many people do not understand how individuals have different symptoms caused by their disabilities, he said.

“You never know what someone’s going through,” Tracy said.

Students with learning disabilities too often hear and use the word “but” as a qualifier when discussing what they can and cannot do, Gotlieb said, referencing a speaker at a conference she attended for college students with learning disabilities. In order to progress, we must start to use the word ‘and’ when discussing ability, she said.

“We as a community need to begin to look at learning disabilities in a holistic way,” Gotlieb said. “I may not read or spell well, and I have a wonderful visual memory. There’s a combination of many things that make the compilation of the student I am.”

Experiencing recurrent bouts of depression was both a “blessing and curse” for Daniel Leopold ’10, he said.

“I’ve realized I need to use my family and close friends and take advantage of the resources we have [at Dartmouth],” Leopold said of his experience.

After a rough freshman year, Leopold handled his depression by using resources at Dick’s House and beginning sessions with a behavioral therapist, he said.

Although his symptoms diminished for a year, his depression resurfaced after sophomore year, Leopold said. Withdrawing for a term, Leopold cited an experience living with close friends as a turning point in his life.

“I switched [my major] from pre-med to psychology,” Leopold said. “I began to embrace who I was... it was the best thing I’d ever done for myself.”

Individuals have the choice to control how happy they are and how they approach things, Leopold said.

“We need people. You can’t shut individuals out,” he said.

Initiating conversation about learning accommodations on campus helps raise awareness about disabilities at the College, panelist and ABLE co-founder Emily Broas ’11 said.

“It levels the playing field on multiple fronts, allowing us to pursue the same goals and accomplishments,” Broas said. “By facilitating accommodations, we ensure students aren’t excluded from [the learning experience of] Dartmouth College.”

Panelists pointed to the perception of a “two-tiered system” at the College that divides students with disabilities from those without disabilities.

To combat this, members of the Dartmouth community must begin to genuinely work together in a culture of mutual respect, panelists said.

“We are all human and struggle in different ways,” Vernon said. “Be mindful and aware that you might never be aware of what someone is experiencing. On the outside, we may all look the same, but on the inside, there’s different things going on inside all of us.”