“People seem nervous about communicating with me, but they really shouldn’t be,” urged College of Staten Island senior, Brigette Jara, a student who is deaf. The Cinema Studies major was one of 11 students with disabilities who spoke at the Center for Student Accessibility’s (CSA) third annual “My Story” event last semester.
Presenting their candid stories of challenge and triumph in college to an audience of more than 125 students, faculty, staff, friends, and family, the panelists were proud to share their feelings and experiences. The April 10 presentation in the Recital Hall served as the kick-off event for CUNY Disability Awareness Month and is one of a dozen events that the CSA sponsored in honor of the month. Organized by CSA Director Chris Cruz Cullari, Assistant Director Joanne D’Onofrio, and Project Manager Sara Paul, “My Story” is one of the biggest and most significant events that the Center coordinates. The purpose of the annual event is to both educate individuals with and without disabilities and to diffuse some of the stereotypes surrounding college students with disabilities.
Jara says, for example, she encounters many CSI students who don’t attempt to communicate with her. “My peers can text or Facebook me, communicate with me through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, or simply write things down,” stressed Jara, who plans to become a film professor.
Other CSI student panelists included Annemarie Cantasano, a student with a learning disability; Andrew Petrone, a student who is deaf; Chris Williams, a student with a physical disability; Stephanie Pietropaolo, a student who has cerebral palsy and a learning disability; Lauren Butler (Glennon), a student who has Marfan’s Syndrome; John Campione, a student who has cerebral palsy; Rob Holminski, a student who has social anxiety disorder and a learning disability; Marybeth Melendez, a graduate student who is blind; Ryan LaMarche, a student who has Asperger’s Syndrome; and Sean Thatcher, a student who is a quadriplegic.
The afternoon program began with remarks from Cruz Cullari, D’Onofrio, and Vice Presidentfor Student Affairs Dr. A Ramona Brown, an active supporter of CSA initiatives and efforts. A brief video montage created by Center staff highlighted CSA milestones and gave general information about students with disabilities on the national level. Cruz Cullari also articulated some interesting reflections on students with disabilities. His introductory comments also gave context to the event and to the issues surrounding students with disabilities and disability service provision in higher education today.
“It’s powerful to hear the candid stories of perseverance from our students,” noted Cruz Cullari. “This event, in a very real way, captures the importance of our work.”
The two-hour program captivated audience members, many of whom left with very different ideas of what it means to be a college student with a disability. From Thatcher, who was injured in June 2009 when he lunged into a lake and fractured his C4, C5, and C6 vertebras leaving him a quadriplegic, to Williams, who bravely rushed to save his sister from harassment and was shot nine times by a gang member, the panelists did not leave out any of the sometimes painful and emotional details of their lives. The impact on the audience was evident.
“People don’t understand how strong and intelligent students with disabilities are. If these amazing individuals can achieve their goals, there is really no excuse for those individuals who do not have a disability,” commented Vincent DiCristo, a CSI freshman who plans to apply to the Nursing program.
“It’s people like Chris Williams who give the world hope as well as give strength to addressing this taboo topic openly,” commented Hadeel Ayesh, a CSI freshman.
Indeed, the “My Story” speakers agree that the event is a necessary staple in the CSI events calendar.
“I think it was and will continue to be a great learning experience for those who share their story and for all who come to listen,” commented Campione, a senior who was accepted into CSI’s Mental Health Counseling program.
“‘My Story’ allows for a parallel process of the teaching and learning experience to occur in a holistic way at a venue where it is relaxed, yet informative at the same.
“We, the panelists, have a responsibility to the campus community and to our peers to leave our footprints and to educate the new student body. We are taking this opportunity to be out of the classroom and to have a thinking moment, a human moment,” said Melendez, who is graduating in January 2014 with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. “You are learning about real people with real challenges and how they were able to overcome. That is something that anyone can embrace and incorporate into their own lives whether they have a disability or not.”
The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.