Whether outward or discrete, some students at the University of Richmond struggle with disabilities -- physical, cognitive, learning and emotional.
In fact, about 12 percent of the student population has a disability accommodation, said Chantelle E. Bernard, associate director of multicultural affairs and disability services.
As a way to start a conversation centered around student disabilities on campus, the Office of Disability Services is working in conjunction with Richmond College Student Government Association, Westhampton College Government Association and disability services student ambassadors to host a Disability Awareness Week on campus from Nov. 12 through Nov. 16.
Just last year, Bernard had the idea to create a faculty ambassador program when she realized a lot of faculty were having concerns because they wanted to be sure they were doing the best job they could do for students with disabilities, Bernard said. She wanted to educate them on what their responsibilities were to the students.
Bernard recruited around 25 professors to participate in a four-hour training that consisted of a presentation, simulation exercises on common scenarios and a test to see how well they could react and perform in those scenarios, Bernard said.
“It was really kind of interesting because they were like, ‘Wow, I would’ve done maybe the opposite,’” Bernard said. “So, we tried to tie it into the responsibility not just for being educators, but also the fact that accommodations are tied to the ADA, the American Disabilities Act -- that’s the law.”
Soon Bernard’s idea of disability services ambassadorship expanded to both staff and students. Bernard said she wanted staff members and students to be armed with the conversation about accommodations and had wanted to educate students on their rights and responsibilities.
Sophomore Melissa Lewis then approached Bernard about her time with disability services on campus to see what they could do as far as disability awareness on campus, Lewis said.
“From the time entering campus, I could tell disabilities were not something that was talked about,” Lewis said. “In a lot of places, it’s seen as taboo to speak about, and unfortunately a lot of that comes with disregard for students with disabilities because I think a lot of people don’t understand.
“It’s not fair to people like me who have to live with these things every day and do not get the respect they deserve.”
As a person suffering from hip dysplasia, Lewis said she felt smacked in the face because students and faculty members alike had not understood disabilities on campus. Bernard wanted there to be a group of students who cared about the same thing, wanted to see change made and wanted to see conversation started, Lewis said.
“There was already a basis of disability awareness week,” Lewis said. “Why not kick it up a notch?”
There already was a disability awareness week, but it had not been that big of a deal before, said WCGA President Monica Stack. Stack and RCSGA President Tyler York were both certified as disability services student ambassadors.
Stack said she and York were planning to have a week of programming including tabling information about disability services, ableism and disabilities on campus, and then have a guided discussion with Bernard where students could give feedback on places on campus that may not be accessible to them.
“My thing is that the disability department can only do so much,” Lewis said. “That’s where people hit a wall.”
Bernard, Stack and Lewis each emphasized the motto for the week, “Let’s start the conversation,” and its importance to the week itself.
Bernard said awareness and understanding the "why?" behind disabilities were both key.
“If people understand this is happening, there’s that awareness that we want to be supportive of one another,” Bernard said.
Not only is support important to disability services, but advocacy is as well. Junior Chris Young, a student who uses a wheelchair to get around campus, echoed this sentiment.
Five years ago, Young was involved in a car accident. He over-corrected, swerved into the side of the road and flew through his sunroof, he said. Young suffered from a severe spinal-cord injury to his C5 through C7 vertebrae and a traumatic brain injury leaving him as quadriplegic, he said.
When Young arrived at the University of Richmond, he met with Dr. Alene Howard Waller, who helped him with his accommodations.
Although Young said disability services had been “over the top” with his care, he also said advocating for himself was important.
“I just like to let people know that if you see someone with a disability, there’s all kinds of disabilities,” Young said. “So, let them know and be transparent with people.”
Stack said a goal for the week would be making sure students were mindful of the needs that other students who have disability accommodations have. The way to do this is through conversation, Lewis agreed.
“If the school community starts talking about it, people will recognize that change needs to be made,” Lewis said.
Young said he thought the idea for a disability awareness week was a positive one and that it “couldn’t hurt.”
“It highlights something that a lot of people aren’t aware about,” Young said. “They see me around, but that’s all they do -- they just see me.”
Tabling for disability awareness week began on Nov. 8 and 9. A Disability Listening Session will be hosted Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. in the Tyler Haynes Commons Room 305. Disability Awareness Week is the week of Monday, Nov. 12. Details on a documentary screening will be announced.
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