Confidence Key for College Students with Disabilities to Thrive
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born with a mild case of cerebral palsy, author and writer Zachary Fenell focuses on spreading disability awareness through written word and social media. He has written disability orientated content for numerous websites and penned Off Balanced, his teenage memoir exploring how CP affected him socially as an adolescent.
If my former high school and college classmates congregated to talk about me, I imagine some confusion might stir. The dialogue could go something like this.
“You went to college with Zach? I went to high school with him. Zach made class fun but I didn’t know him too well. He mostly kept to himself between bells.”
“Zach? No way! He sat with different people in the dining hall. He wrote some rather revealing articles about himself for the newspaper. He participated in seemingly all the campus poetry readings and open mic nights. He was always putting himself out there.”
“Hold on, are you sure we’re talking about the same Zach?”
Yes, my demeanor changed drastically between high school and college. In high school I remained shy and timid, a teenager with only a few friends. My bashful nature stemmed from my mild case of cerebral palsy. Weak, embarrassed, and inferior all described emotions connected to my CP. These negative feelings helped result in many high school regrets.
Entering college I vowed to change and capitalize on my new beginning. Reflecting back on my time at Notre Dame College (of Ohio) from 2005 to 2009 one key stands out as most essential, confidence. I thrived both academically and socially at NDC because I learned to believe in me.
The first step towards obtaining confidence, publicize my CP. No longer did I try avoiding discussing my disability. Instead I said “Yeah, I have cerebral palsy” at the first appropriate opening. Such an approach prevented a peer from awkwardly thinking, “Why does Zach walk with a limp? Should I ask, or would that be rude?”
Openness indicates confidence and confidence creates comfort. My actions communicated to my peers “I might have cerebral palsy but I’m okay. It’s all good.” For example, one day I walked into the campus dining hall. Before grabbing some chow I headed over to the table where my best friend Mike sat when suddenly SPLAT! I’m on the ground, thanks to a fall caused by a wet floor.
Rather than turning red and leaving the room in shame, I dusted myself off, stood up, and quipped loud enough for everyone to hear me “Dry campus my @$$!” The silly joke played off NDC’s no alcohol on campus policy. A year or two later Mike mentioned to me on the phone. “Yeah, Jim thought you were really cool. Like the time you fell in the dining hall, he was impressed with how you handled that. He thought it was hilarious.”
Now honestly, not everyone will support and embrace you. Thanks to my cerebral palsy, I’m perhaps the worst Ping-Pong player ever. Still, I like to play the game with friends. One day down in the rec hall I’m going one-on-one with my friend Annie. A guy walked in and started laughing. “You’re not even trying” he claimed. Annie quickly silenced the observer telling him “That’s enough.”
Another time I went down to the rec hall to talk to my friend Tayalia who held a work-study job there. I found Tayalia chatting with her classmate Matt. He challenged me to a game of pool. I told him I’m not very good but he insisted on playing. Unlike the Ping-Pong intruder, Matt didn’t make any snarky comments regarding my stellar coordination (note my sarcasm). Yet I could tell he lost interest in the game. Matt and I went on to become good acquaintances but he never challenged me to another game of pool.
Guess what though? When I reflect back on my rec hall experiences, I don’t think about that ill-fated pool game with Matt or the time my Ping-Pong skills triggered laughter. I remember all the fun I had playing Ping-Pong with friends, specifically Kevin and my suitemate Alex. Kevin and Alex knew how to scale down their talents and keep an entertaining match going with me without doing so in a demeaning or condescending fashion.
Ultimately by exuding confidence I built an advocate army, individuals willing to step up on my behalf when others refused to or showed no interest in doing so. I sincerely hope my post here motivates you to exhibit your own confidence and as a result build your own personal advocate army.
*If you enjoyed my post and possess interest in learning more about my experiences with cerebral palsy as an adolescent, checkout my teenage memoir Off Balanced. Available on the Kindle and Nook, Off Balanced delves greater into my journey from timid and shy teen to outgoing and confident individual. Also feel free to contact me by visiting www.zacharyfenell.com. You can read more of my disability related content at The Mobility Resouce.
Dominika Needs Help
Dominika Gergely, a former athlete at Wofford College, needs financial help to complete paying for her college education. Read her story in her own words below. If you would like to help her you can contact Dominika directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
My dedication and hard work have lifted me to become an outstanding student-athlete. I have been named the best student in the institution several times. I have also been a member of the Hungarian National Youth Women’s Basketball Team, which has earned me a full athletic scholarship in the United States. I have recently suffered a serious back injury leaving me with a 20% permanent physical impairment. As a result, I have lost my basketball scholarship at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.
I am a senior; in fact, I am only one semester away from graduating. Kind foundations have helped raise my faith again to fight for what I am physically still capable of – namely, to finish my education, and therefore leave my remaining doors open for success. However, I still fall a little short financially to complete my last semester.
I now find myself in an unfamiliar situation because my athletic scholarship has financed my studies entirely so far. However, following my unexpected injury, I am now unable to continue my athletic career and my scholarship has been removed. My parents are unable to contribute much to my tuition, as their combined (Hungarian) income does not exceed $11,000 per year. I am registered for my last semester at Wofford College (for 18 credit hours), but beyond the support I have already received from my family and foundations, there is still a $5,800 gap to fill.
I am desperately seeking further help and support to finish my Bachelor’s degree, so I can utilize my knowledge, experience and multiculturalism on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. I would really appreciate even the smallest aid. After losing my health, my future basketball career, and my scholarship, please do not let me lose anymore. Let me complete my education. I kindly ask you to assist me finish my studies!
John Miller is a former graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Division of Rehabilitation Counseling and Psychology. In this narrative, John tells us of his personal experiences as a blind college student.
Blind College Life by John Miller
My college experience as a blind individual has been both challenging and full of opportunities for personal growth. In this article, I will attempt to summarize some of the main issues I encountered, as well as the more positive occurrences therein. I will also make recommendations that I think may help other blind and low-vision students as they matriculate, and that will hopefully have wider utility for persons from many different ability levels.
Some of the challenges I had to deal with arose almost immediately on arrival. During my first year, I was hesitant to speak up for myself and to inform those around me of my real needs.
My mom wanted me to get a feeling for what it would be like sitting in the area just outside of my dormitory. There was, as in many college settings, a type of quad full of people playing sports, reading, or otherwise lounging.
She’d taken me to a wall where I could sit for a while. “Ok, I’m going to leave,” she informed me. “But before I do, I want to be sure you know where you are”.
“Yes I do,” I responded, even though I couldn’t quite map back to my prior location in my head. I was being entrusted with the great and weighty burden of establishing independence, after all, and I certainly didn’t want to look incapable right out of the gate.
Despite my immediate academic achievements, I managed 3 A’s and a B that first semester, my lack of assertiveness continued to cause problems. In the second semester, for example, I actually completed all of the assignments for one of my classes but had run out of printer paper. All I needed to do to rectify that situation was place a call to the Office of Disability Services, but my mouth would go dry at the prospect of admitting that I required assistance.
Because I had gotten off to such a good start in that class, the fact that I turned in none of the work for the second half meant only that I received a C. This lack of potential on my part was met with the consternation of many of my supporters.
Armed with an understanding of the adjustment issues inherent in taking on the new social role as college student, I later served as a mentor, through the Office of Disability Services, to other incoming undergraduate students who had indicated a desire for such a service. In this capacity, I would call the individual with whom I had been paired at least once a week to inquire about needs, study habits, socialization with peers in the dorm and classroom setting, etc. I believe this to be one of the most important things I accomplished while there, as it not only helped strengthen my own confidence, but also resulted in a clear improvement in grades pre and post intervention with my mentee.
Other than serving as a mentor though, I failed to do nearly enough extra-curricular activity to really benefit. As occurs too often not only among persons with disabilities but many who feel they are not part of the “in-crowd,” I contented myself with going to class, coming back to my room, studying, eating, and going to sleep. Many organizations tried to get me to come onboard, but I was too shy and unable to see how I might clearly fit in.
Having the perspective of entering the job market post graduation, I now know that this failure to network was a critical error. I certainly am not denying the importance of having a solid academic standing, but if one completes his or studies and has few if any connections then securing desirable employment is going to be a lot more difficult. This is true whether or not one has a disability, but it is particularly so for the former as we must also overcome the perception of inability to perform basic job tasks. Much of this is done simply by letting others know that we exist and are functioning at a high level in society.
So if asked what my most stringent recommendation would be: network, network, and network. Be sure to become part of any clubs and other campus organizations you can, while of course finding that healthy balance. When you arrive on campus, see if you can find a mentor. Then, of course, extend your hand back to mentor others once you are firmly established. Most of all enjoy the experience!
Nika Pendleton is a Junior at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge who is majoring in Psychology. Nika describes her experience and challenges as a student with a disability on LSU’s campus and compares it with her prior experience as a student at the Baton Rouge Community College (BRCC).
Hi my name is Nika Pendleton. I am a Psychology Junior. I transferred from BRCC [Baton Rouge Community College] about two years ago. Coming from BRCC to LSU [Louisiana State University] was a challenge because over at BRCC they were much more accommodating because they have newer buildings than over here at LSU.
Some of the challenges that I’ve had while being at LSU have to do with getting desks put in my classrooms and for when I couldn’t get my desks in my room, I emailed my disability counselor and he eventually would email me back and the desks would never get put in my room but now eventually he stopped emailing me. So my Dad works over in Facilities Services so I emailed him and he had the desks put in for me.
Being at LSU has definitely been a challenge. Some of the challenges that I’ve faced is getting desks in my room, in my classrooms that I need and this past semester I took a class with a lab with it which was in the Ag. [Agriculture] Administration Building which was in the basement and I couldn’t even get into the building at all. So they had to move me into Disability Services and that took about a month and a half.
Even though I’ve faced, even though these problems come up, I really really love being at LSU. And my message to anybody with a disability is that if you really want to do something and you face the obstacle of your disability, don’t let that get in the way because if you really put your mind to it you can do anything you want. Don’t listen to people who tell you, you can’t do it.
————————————————————————————————————————————Jose Reynaldo Martínez Fernandez: Freshman student at University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras campus.
Estudiante autista de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Rio Piedras.
“Hola soy José Reynaldo Martínez Fernández Yo estudio aquí en la Universidad de Puerto Rico una tremenda Universidad, la mejor que hay por lo menos en la isla. Mi clase favorita por ahora es hasta ahora la historia de Estados Unidos. Ahora, uno de los Problemas que estoy teniendo es que a veces soy un poquito, tengo a veces descontrolamiento sobre mi, en mis reacciones a ciertas estudiantes femeninas que hay aquí. Por ejemplo hubo quejas de que cosas impropias que le hago a estudiantes y yo quisiera saber a buscar la manera de parar eso. Yo no quiero problemas con nadie en esta universidad, con nadie, con nadie. (Y te gusta mucho la Universidad Pepe?)Claro que me gusta la universidad es una maravilla, lo único que necesito es este controlar mis reacciones a las chicas aquí, las chicas de mi gusto. (Y aquí te dan apoyo en la universidad, los profesores, los estudiantes? Yo cojo todo el apoyo que necesito. Especialmente de esta joven Morayma García, que lleva diez anos en la Universidad. (OK. Y ella estudia contigo en las mismas clases?) Bueno ella intenta de dejarme solo en cualquier clase, aunque de vez en cuando me deja con su amiga Gizelle Rodríguez (Y la Universidad te puso en contacto con Morayma, o tu mama? No, fue Morayma que fue responsable por mi pasión a la Universidad? No, Fue Morayma que fue responsable por mi pasión por la Universidad. Yo he conocido a Morayma hace cuatro años, 4 no, 3 creo que son 3 años que conozco a Morayma, desde el 2006, y ella me está ayudado en todo lo que en todo para no tener ningún problemas aquí en la Universidad. (Cuando tu vas a las clases tú tienes a alguien que toma notas por ti o tu..) a veces yo tengo y a veces yo escribo y a veces Giselle me anota lo que (lo que dan en la clase). Si. (Mira y aquí en la Universidad tu trabajas?) Yo trabajo pero no en el Recinto de Rio Piedras yo trabajo en una división que se llama Filius donde tienen una oficina que se llama la Asistencia Tecnológica de Puerto Rico o por sus siglas en Inglés le llaman el PRAT el Yo lo que hago es este archivar ciertos documentos que hubo sobre las evaluaciones y también este de vez en cuando yo hago ciertas cosas de entretener a los niños chiquitos como por ejemplo grabar ciertos libros, libros de libros infantiles y de videos de libros infantiles o libros de niños, de niños de ciertos niños con impedimentos como de 7 a 10 como Kung Fu Panda. (OK y entonces tu trabajas con el grupo en Puerto Rico de Assistive Technology) . Ese mismo. (OK. Y ahí hay muchas personas trabajando ahí). Unas cuantas, no muchas pero unas cuantas, unas cuantas personas trabajan ahí. Hay unas cuantas personas, No más de 20, pero. (Y tu trabajas ahí todos los días?) No. Yo solamente trabajo los lunes y los viernes. (Vas todo el día o unas cuantas horas?)Bueno voy este, voy casi todo el día. (Y que te gusta más, trabajar o estudiar) Yo te diría que… Me gusta mucho trabajar. Ahora estudiar eso todo depende de la clase, eso depende de la clase de si me gusta la clase o no. (Cuál es la clase más difícil para ti) Bueno yo te diría que literatura en Ingles. Claro Yo hablo bien fluente el idioma. Yo sé leer muy bien el idioma. Para mí lo que está difícil es la teoría que enseña esta profesora. (Ajah es gramática o es este literatura inglesa, los figures of speech?) Hablo bien el idioma. Lo que es difícil es este que tengo que estar escribiendo cosas que la profesora pide no lo que pienso yo. (Oh)”
————————————————————————————————————————————Michael McGonigal: Sophomore student at Juniata College in Huntingdon Pennsylvania.
Juniata College student speaking about his experience with Attention Deficit Disorder.
“My name is Michael McGonigal and I am 19 years old and I am a Freshman here at Juniata College. My program of emphasis is Biology, and my future profession I hope to be a doctor. I will be planning on applying to medical school. I was in sophomore year of high school when I was first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. The teachers at my school were very understanding and helpful, they made it a lot, they were very accommodating, they allowed me extra time on tests if I couldn’t finish. I received a whole bunch of support and encouragement from my teachers and they were more than willing to help me with anything I ever needed. Coming to Juniata College I made a lot of friends. I believe that the social interactions here are much different than they were in high school, thethere is a whole lot less cliques. I believe that, I do believe that support services and accommodations might be very helpful to people with the same disability as me. I do know that the school is very, very, understanding and does have a good support service for my certain disability and I also might benefit from a network of people and students that could get together and the school would be able to help us all at the same time with accommodations or I also I chose not to so far Ive not disclosed my disability to the school. It was in my entrance essay to the college but I have not made any formal plans or official notices to the college of my disability, and that was a personal choice that I just decided I didnt think Id need it. So I just decided to battle through it on my own.”
“Mi nombre es Michael McGonigal y tengo 19 años, y soy un estudiante universitario de primer año de Juniata College. Mi programa de énfasis es biología y espero que mi futura profesión sea la práctica médica.
Yo espero solicitar admisión a la escuela de medicina. Fue en la escuela superior cuando se me diagnosticó por primera vez la condición del Desorden de Déficit de Atención. Las maestras de mi escuela superior fueron muy comprensivas y dispuestas a ayudarme. Ellas me acomodaron y lo hicieron todo mucho más [llevadero]. Ellas me daban tiempo adicional en los exámenes si yo no los podía terminar. Yo recibí mucha ayuda y comprensión de mis maestras y siempre estuvieron más que dispuestas a ayudar con cualquier cosa que yo necesitase. Cuando llegué a Juniata College hice muchos amigos. Yo creo que la interacción social aquí es bien distinta a la de la escuela superior, aquí hay menos cliques.
Yo creo que los servicios de apoyo y los acomodos podrían ser de mucha ayuda a personas con mi misma discapacidad. Yo sé que mi escuela es muy, muy comprensiva y tiene buenos servicios de apoyo para mi discapacidad. Yo también podría beneficiarme de una red de apoyo de personas y estudiantes, que juntos y con la escuela, podrían ayudarnos a todos a la misma vez con acomodos. Yo también, yo escogí no revelar mi discapacidad a la universidad. Fue en mi ensayo de admisión a la universidad, pero no he hecho planes formales ni notificación oficial a la universidad de mi discapacidad, y esa fue una decisión personal que yo hice, que yo decidí yo no necesitaba [el acomodo] y decidí que yo iba a combatir la situación por mi mismo.”