February 27, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Living With a Disability at Cornell

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I am a student at an Ivy League university, where I plan to major in mathematics with a possible double major in government. I earned an A+ for my first college math class, Theoretical Calculus II, and have advocated in front of three New York State senators, the lieutenant governor and the state comptroller. I have actively participated in the sport of fencing for more than five years, and hope  to one day become a certified referee.

I have a rare congenital disorder called Larsen’s Syndrome which affects my muscular-skeletal system and has left me unable to walk. I require 24/7 nursing care, and assistance with many activities such as showering, preparing meals and transferring onto the toilet. I was baptized the day I was born for fear that I would not survive the night. I am one of the lucky ones.

As I look back upon my first semester at Cornell, I think about the challenges, joys, hiccups and surprises I encountered along the way, both from the perspective of disability and as a normal college freshman. After I took my first tour of Cornell, I went home with one word in my head: hills. As amazing as it all seemed, my accessibility needs made Libe Slope look like Mount Everest. I exaggerate greatly of course, but to someone trying to get his wheelchair up to the Arts Quad for the first time, the analogy does seem apt. Nevertheless, I decided to apply (because, why not?) and, to my surprise and elation, I got in! Also, after initial conversations with Cornell’s Student Disabilities Services, I was immensely impressed with how accommodating Cornell was to my physical situation. So, still unsure on how it would all work, I sent in my deposit.

Even before I had my first class, the University worked hard to figure out how I would live on campus. The people at Cornell, especially those at SDS, worked tirelessly to create an accessible living environment on campus, renovating a dorm room and installing in indoor ceiling-track lift so that a single nurse could transfer me in and out of my chair to the bed, toilet or shower. They also told me about CULift, a transportation service offered for free through SDS which transports students with disabilities or injuries around campus to their classes or other events. Mount Everest began to seem climbable after all.

When classes began, the student body at Cornell impressed me most of all. With the fencing team, I was quickly included as a member of the group, and I now help out by refereeing practice matches and doing some data-entry of fencing statistics (which ties in very well with my interest in math). To me, it is truly a testament to the attitude of inclusion at Cornell that a team of Division I college athletes from so many different walks of life can be so inclusive of someone from the entirely opposite end of the “physical spectrum,” so to speak. Within the student body in general, I have extremely rarely felt any hint of the “pity party” that characterizes too many interactions between able-bodied and disabled individuals. Even after one semester, I have already made quite a few friends, and met people who I think will be my friends for a very long time to come.

The entire picture is not this rosy, however. As part of orientation, I attended the Identity and Belonging Project at Bailey Hall. While the show was very informative and enlightening, I was struck by how little mention was made of disability in any form, especially considering the fact that there are over 1300 students registered with SDS, according to their own website.

I felt that a wonderful opportunity to share at least part of the disability experience with the freshman class was foregone, with the only mention of disability at all being a single mention of a student having epilepsy, and little further exploration of what that, or any other disability, means in terms of daily life, identity or any other aspect of a Cornell student’s experience. Moreover, I feel that Cornell missed the chance to explain to a broad audience how, for some, disability is a source of pride and an identity and culture to be shared and celebrated.

Nevertheless, I was pleased to find out that there was a vibrant disability community on campus. Early on, I was able get involved with the Cornell Union for Disability Awareness, a group of students who advocate for people with disabilities at Cornell, to raise awareness in the general student body of the issues they face. Within this group I have seen some truly excellent advocacy work begin, and I am proud to be a member of it.

While there were other issues that came up, they certainly did not stop me from enjoying my first semester here at Cornell. The atmosphere of accessibility seems wonderfully pervasive and obviously runs deep to Cornell’s core (though maybe not its physical buildings). No longer does Libe Slope seem like Mount Everest (temperature notwithstanding). I have seen the people here prove helpful and understanding beyond my wildest dreams, and in doing so show that Cornell is, truly, a place where any person can find instruction in any study.

Conan Gillis is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com