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Honors Disabilities Talk

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Article Written by Rachel Miles

Photo Courtesy of Roanoke College

The Honors Program hosted an event in the Wortmann Ballroom on Wednesday evening, the third in their series of diversity events during the semester. The series has included the House of Terror, hosted with Residence Life and Housing, a politics discussion with the Department of Public Affairs, and Wednesday’s panel discussion about disabilities hosted with college students, professors, staff and alumna.

The statements, “How many of you, when you were looking into colleges, researched hospitals just as much?”  and “How many of you have sat on the toilet and wept with gratitude that you can pee? Just me? Ok,” were spoken by Senior, Kelsey Reseingir and Roanoke College alumna Evelyn Clarke, two members on the panel for the talk about living with disabilities. Junior, Amanda Zingale and academic advisor and coordinator of special services in the Center for Learning & Teaching, JoAnn Stephens-Forrest, joined them on the panel.

The bottom of the poster that advertised the event read “This event will be accessible to people with disabilities,” which was a prime example of the sense of humor all the speakers had while discussing parts of their situation, despite the lack of humor in many of their experiences.

Clarke spoke first and related her story of falling nearly nine stories from an apartment building, spending months on life support and without the ability to speak. Now, despite being able to take small steps with a walker, she is still plagued by many of the inconveniences of somebody physically disabled in the modern world.

“You constantly have to plan, and you constantly have to think,” she said in regards to moving about in a wheelchair. “Everything is really hard, I’m not going to lie. I spent weeks learning how to turn myself in bed. The world is not an accessible place.”

Zingale spoke next about a disability that she has lived with since birth – cerebral palsy. While she spent her earlier life in denial about her differences, she said that at age 14 she was able to say, “Yeah I’m disabled, and I’m pretty freaking cool. And if I wasn’t disabled I wouldn’t be me.”

In reference to Clarke’s situation and in reflection about how to think about disabilities, she said, “You could become disabled at any time. It could be you in a second… We’re all different, but we’re really not so different. So don’t feel sorry for them, because they could be really proud of who they are. I am.”

Sophomore Megan Blackwell spoke on behalf of Frances Bosch, an RC professor, who grew up in a family of those with differences. Disabilities, she said, was a word she needed to be taught later in life because it was not one she grew up knowing.

Reisinger spoke next about her medical condition, Marfan syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue and thus most aspects of the body. She also noted how often mental disorders are linked to physical ones and highlighted the important fact that many disorders are invisible. Depression and anxiety are two that she mentioned which can paralyze a person in their own ways. “There are days when we all want to give up” she says, “but we persevere because we have to, because there’s nothing else to do but move forward.”

The last speaker of the evening was Stephens-Forrest. She described the strength and dedication she sees in the students with disabilities that she works with on Roanoke’s campus. “They know what it is to struggle,” she said.

After the panelists spoke, the audience asked questions. Common in the conversation were comments about inaccessibility both on Roanoke’s campus and in the outside world, and constructive suggestions were made as well as continued joking, as Zingale laughed that “All I want for Christmas is to make everything flat.”

The panelists were incredibly forthcoming and the dialogue was at times uncomfortable, as was mentioned in a few of their stories, but Reisinger noted that the uncomfortable aspect often came from how little these issues are brought up. She asked the students present to listen, to not judge, and to help to educate and reduce the stigma for those living with disabilities on and off campus.