Eight Rochester Institute of Technology freshmen were selected as the university’s first Disability Leadership Scholars to advocate and educate about disability.
“I am honored to be part of this group,” said Gavin Morrobel, a business-seeking student from Scotch Plains, New Jersey. There are other people out there with similar experiences they can talk to.
Just before the semester, scholars underwent a three-day orientation. There they met with internal and external speakers to discuss disability justice, access in colleges, mental health, accessible technology, and other topics.
“Here at RIT, there’s so much diversity, so many different types of people and so many disabilities, it’s not all the same for everyone,” Morrobel said. It’s important to ask questions and help people with disabilities openly.”
Catherine Lewis, director of the Disability Services Office, said an estimated 3,500 RIT students identify as having a disability this year and are using accommodations. Disabilities can be overt, hidden, temporary, permanent, lifelong, or late in life. Everyone experiences disability differently, even with the same disability type.
The Disability Leadership Scholars program was launched with the support of Microsoft to honor and recruit students with disabilities to RIT in new and innovative ways. In 2021, Microsoft designated her RIT as a Microsoft Accessible University. It is one of six colleges to receive that designation. RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf provided the same amount of funding awarded by Microsoft, allowing RIT to double the size and effectiveness of the program.
“We recognize that the admissions office cannot inquire about a student’s disability status,” Lewis said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace and celebrate disability as diversity when students voluntarily share a part of their identity with us.”
Disability Services designed the program based entirely on student self-nominations and shared the opportunity with high school counselors and community groups across the country. This application was intentionally focused on students’ understanding of disability as a social and political identity rather than medical in nature. and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted accessibility.
About 50 students applied for the program. Finalists were interviewed and winners were selected, each receiving her one-time scholarship.
In December, scholars were placed at the student reunion table to mark the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December. This is the first time the event has been celebrated on campus.
Being an advocate is nothing new for Morrovel. He has Usher Syndrome, which left him deaf at birth and gradually deteriorating his vision. He has been speaking in groups and making videos in recent years to educate others.
Usher Syndrome hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the things I love. This semester, she played flag football and volleyball on campus and made friends, and she plans to start club swimming next semester.
“Whenever I make new friends, I tell them honestly about my disability up front, because in some situations they may need help and they may not know it,” he said. “So I teach them. I am educating them just because I need them to know how they can help me because I tell them. increase.”
John Schultz, a first-year computer engineering technology major from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is deaf and has cerebral palsy. He said he applied “to help spread awareness and advocate for disability on campus.”
He also enjoys being with fellow scholars on the program.
“Everyone is so friendly,” Schultz said. “We are becoming friends.”
Recently, several students participated in a “No Voice Zone” event. The event brought about 60 other students together to learn sign language and communicate with each other using sign language.
“It was really nice to be able to educate people about the terminology,” says Schulz. “Personally, I love questions. Occasionally people associate my spasticity with nervousness, which is sometimes true, but generally not.”
Schulz, who wears a hearing aid cochlear implant, wants to work as a computer engineer for a cochlear implant manufacturer.
“They use a lot of technology and audio processing, so that’s my goal,” he said.
His fellow scholars are equally excited to share their experiences, quell stereotypes, and connect with other students.
“We definitely want to help build a disability community at RIT,” said Maggie Boyle, an ASL-English interpreting major from Glenwood, New York. We want to reach out and be ambassadors for all students with disabilities. “
“I’m really passionate about what people in education can do to make people with disabilities feel included and supported,” says Elliott, an undecided major in Connesas, New York. Gavin said
Tre Reese, a computing and information technology major from Rochester, said he wanted to close the gap between able-bodied and disabled people, saying, “I want to erase the stereotype that people with disabilities are not or cannot be equal for some reason. ‘ said. what others can do. “
At a student reunion information table, visitors were encouraged to post notes about what “disability” meant to them and chat with students.
“Disability helps me express myself,” said one note.
“Disability can be an asset that leads to innovation and creativity because of it, not in spite of it,” said another note.
One of the scholars, Valen Hay, a Web and Mobile Computing major from Chatham, New York, drew a picture of a dog, a cat, and a heart. “I prefer to use pictures than words,” they said.
And the connection is already established. His freshman Brendon Busch, a mechanical engineering major from Hamburg, New York, stopped by the table to learn more about the student.
“It’s interesting,” said Bush, who wears hearing aids. “I want to be more involved on campus.” “I’m hard of hearing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Another passerby, Josh Samuel, a third-year New Media and Interactive Development major from Mount Olive, New Jersey, stopped to talk to Morrovel. They found they had a lot in common, including that they were both from New Jersey.
According to Lewis, the scholars are all first-year students.
“Handling disability in high school is very different than in college,” she said. “We wanted to connect with our students during this pivotal moment of transitioning from K-12 accommodation to a higher education setting. , is to create a warm and proud disabled community the moment they enter the university. I arrive at ease knowing that I am part of an incredibly strong disability community and beyond.”
In addition to the Disability Leadership Scholars, two other groups working on disability issues on campus were formed this semester: the Student Disability Culture Club and the Student Government Accessibility Committee.
In addition to helping scholars feel connected and supported, Lewis said he hopes to recruit them as peer mentors as early as the next academic year. Further on-campus programming, film screenings, and open mic nights on disability identity will be held in the spring semester.
Lewis is quick to remind others that disability should be viewed as a social, political, and cultural identity, not as a medical diagnosis.
“There is disability culture. There is disability scholarship. Disability humor, poetry, theater and music. You’ve done a great job in celebrating identity, culture and community, and I hope this is a good first step towards celebrating disability culture in a more purposeful way at RIT.”