What does it mean to be disabled at an elite university? That was the question addressed at a panel discussion yesterday night organized by the Cornell Union of Disability Awareness (CUDA). The panel was composed of four Cornell students with disabilities: Christina Hartmann ’07, president of the organization, Molly Henderson ’05, John Krenzel grad, mechanical engineering, and Ahmed Salem ’08.
“CUDA was founded this fall, primarily to be an activism group for students on campus,” said Stacey Horman ’07, vice president and co-founder of CUDA, who introduced the panel discussion. The panelists first talked about the process of acquiring accommodations and services on campus.
“I visited many colleges, but Cornell was the only place that promised me an interpreter and C-Print,” Hartmann said. She explained that with C-Print she has a laptop and another person with a laptop takes notes and sends them to her. According to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s website, C-Print is a speech-to-text system with “printed text of spoken English displayed in real time.”
“I’m probably the only person at Cornell who enjoys taking notes, because before C-Print I couldn’t take my own notes and it was really hard to read other peoples’ notes,” said Hartmann.
One of two blind undergraduate students at Cornell, Ahmed Salem ’08, gets electronic texts for his classes that can be read aloud with special software. He said that this approach is much better than using braille for textbooks because the books are much larger and longer.
“The only negative thing is that it’s really difficult for me to change classes because you have to wait 15 business days to get a book, that’s about 3 weeks,” he said.
Dealing with physical surroundings and activities such as carrying, writing and opening doors have been the main challenges for John Krenzel grad, mechanical engineering, who has an artificial arm. He had difficulty getting a parking permit his first semester at Cornell and was given a bus pass instead.
“I got stuck carrying my books around and my arm ended up breaking,” Krenzel said. He was able to obtain a permit after subsequently talking to the engineering college dean.
Molly Henderson ’05, who has a learning disability, attended two other universities before Cornell and was able to compare the accommodations. She said that at the other two universities she took tests and was allotted time through the disability center while at Cornell she receives letters of accommodation from the Student Disabilities Service to give to professors.
The four panelists also talked about their experiences with student responses to their disabilities.
“There’s a big problem in general about what people think a disability is. I personally can’t relate to that word because disability refers to your inability to do things. I can’t ‘read’ a book while walking to class, but I can read the book on my computer and write essays,” said Salem.
He said a lot of people ask him basic questions about what it’s like to be blind, which he interpreted as a lack of awareness. He added that there is a tendency to relate personal choice to a person’s disability. For example he said that people would interpret his decision not to drink at a party as an indication that a blind person can’t drink because that would be too much, to be blind and drinking.
Hartmann said, “People look at me and just because I’m deaf, think that I’m like every other deaf person.” She acknowledged some disadvantages as needing someone to go to classes with her saying, “I can’t fall asleep because someone is watching me.” However, she said that she sees being deaf as a “really enriching experience.”
For Krenzel, the main issue is facing the question “What happened to you?” all the time. “This should certainly not be the first thing out of someone’s mouth,” he said.
Henderson said that her learning disability doesn’t come up very often.
“When I tell them that I have extra time on all of my exams some people say ‘Wow, you’re so lucky’ and I want to say that it’s a pain in the ass scheduling exams,” Henderson said.
The four students with disabilities said that they appreciated help from people on campus but also said that people can overhelp. Some examples of overhelping were rushing to get the door and rushing to pick things up.
“Just because I’m deaf doesn’t mean I can’t handle dropping things,” said Hartmann.
Hartmann and Horman founded CUDA last fall after realizing that none of the more than 800 organizations on campus addressed disability interests. Hartmann said that 1,300 students at Cornell are registered as having a disability. According to Horman, the main goals of the organization are raising awareness about people with disabilities, working towards administrative changes and becoming a presence on campus.
“We are not a special interest group. Disability is a type of diversity, a creative and imaginative way of seeing the world; it’s not bad, it’s just different.”
The panel discussion was also sponsored by community development.
Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun Senior Writer