Advocating for Ability
Dec. 2, 2010
By Elizabeth Chapin
The California State University’s students with disabilities are ability advocates: high achievers determined to show the world what they can do. Inspired by the CSU’s Disabled Student Services’ “focus on ability” approach, they are influencing attitudes and changing misconceptions.
The biggest obstacles faced by the disabled are not physical, but others’ attitudes and misconceptions shaped by stereotypes. Unfortunately, these barriers are often reflected in the classroom and the workplace.
Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the disabled were nearly twice as likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population. The federal government is helping to address this issue by dedicating funds to serve college students with disabilities. Last year, the CSU received $7.6 million in Federal TRIO Grants for Student Support Services, with $1.5 million specifically applied to Services to Students with Disabilities.
By providing resources ranging from counseling to accommodations, the CSU’s Disabled Student Services maintain a level playing field for college students with disabilities. And by emphasizing ability, DSS helps them thrive and prepares them for today’s workforce.
There are no greater advocates for ability than the students themselves. At San José State, the Disability Resource Center aims to achieve “ability beyond disability.” Cindy Marota, associate director for the Disability Resource Center, says this motto is reflected in the students and their stories.
“Beyond curb cuts, accommodations, accessible technology, and all the aspects relating to 'disability,' there are warriors of ability, the catalysts of change who challenge society’s perspective,” Marota said. “It’s our students that shift people’s focus from disability to ability.”
Cal State L.A. student R. David Black is one of those catalysts of change. Black experienced a physical transformation that ultimately changed his path and perspective on life – but now his accomplishments are changing everyone else’s perception of ability.
Black moved to California to pursue a master’s degree at USC. However, vision loss associated with diabetes forced him to put those plans on hold. Black underwent several surgeries to regain his eyesight, but his retina detached after each surgery – he was part of the 5 percent failure rate. After the sixth failed surgery, he was totally blind.
However, Black was still determined to continue his education. While learning to adapt to life without vision, his passion and interest also adapted with his new life. He researched graduate programs and found the perfect fit at Cal State L.A.
“Cal State L.A. has a rehab counseling program. I wanted to be able to help people with disabilities, so there couldn’t have been a better match,” Black said.
Black went back to school knowing that this time around, it would be a little different. But he says re-adapting to the college environment without vision wasn’t as difficult as he first imagined.
“I used to see blind people wander around campus and think, how do they do that? On my first day back, I remember thinking now I’m one of those people,” Black said. “Sure, it was scary at first, but I learned by trial and error and adapted quickly.”
Black continued to prove the doubts and expectations wrong. He learned Braille in a month, earned his master's degree with a 4.00 GPA, and is currently an Ed.D. student and the 2010 Trustee Ali C. Razi Scholar, an honor bestowed on the top-scoring recipient of the Hearst / CSU Trustees' Award.
Now Black says he wants to use his education to increase understanding of people with disabilities in the classroom and the office. His Ed.D. dissertation is on Universal Design for Learning, which sets principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.
“Universal Design for Learning integrates visual and auditory presentation methods," Black said. "Not only do students with disabilities benefit from it, but it’s proven to make the learning experience more enriching for all students.”
After he receives his doctorate, Black wants to teach. His goal is to familiarize California’s future teachers with UDL and help get it integrated into college curriculums.
He hopes this work will help future college students with disabilities realize their abilities and pursue higher education.
“You can do it. It’s a lot of hard work, but seek out all the resources your campus has to offer,” Black advises. “Make sure people know that you are completely able to do everything your peers can, but you might just do it in a different way. Change the stereotype to ‘abilities.’”