ABILITY event questions norms surrounding disabilities

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When he was fifteen, Aaron Cross experienced a traumatic event that left him in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury. Since his injury, Cross has competed in the Special Olympics three times as an archer, traveled the world, and has spoken to thousands of students about overcoming adversity. When asked about how he coped with such a trauma, Cross claims that his attitude, and the attitude of his loved ones, towards the injury is what got him through it. His story is one of many uplifting tales that were told on the panel during the ABILITY event on Friday in an effort to show that there is a difference between handicapped and handicap-able.

The ABILITY event took over Atwood in an attempt to educate students and faculty on what it is like to live with certain disabilities. Atwood Center was crowded with people on Friday, all there to be educated about different mental and physical disabilities that affect thousands of people around the world.

Amy Hebert-Knopf, an assistant professor in the the Rehabilitation master’s degree program, helped coordinate the event. She has been a part of the effort to build a worldwide campaign for education about disabilities. This campaign includes panels of speakers making appearances at colleges and talking about their experiences with disabilities.

“It’s very exciting,” said Hebert-Knopf. “A lot of people come out to this event and we see a lot of minds changed because of it”.

The coordinators, including Herbert-Knopf, focused the event on education and awareness. Changing attitudes and minds towards disabilities is a main goal.  Their hope is that students will walk away knowing that people with disabilities are just as capable as people without. Stories, like the ones told by Aaron Cross, show students that attitude matters the most when it comes to addressing the issue.

“My hope is that someone will get inspired by this,” Cross said. “The goal is exposure and changing the social etiquette surrounding disabilities”.

Cross wants people to question the social norms surrounding disabilities and destroying the presumptions people have when faced with them. Panelists, including Cross, emphasize taking the knowledge learned from the event and continuing the conversation with friends and family. Cross and other panelists have continued the conversation by travelling around the world and going to places that don’t have the easiest access. Cross says that this helps show people the importance of updating access points and keeping the conversation going.

Cross and other panelists continued the conversation by taking part in the separate conferences. The heart of the conferences was a “simulation experience” which forced participants to feel what it was like to have a disability.  There were 8 simulation stations: deaf/hard-of-hearing, blind, cerebral palsy, autism, ADD/ADHD, mental health, dysphagia, and spinal cord injury. Each one challenged participants in how they viewed the disability. Participants spent the afternoon wearing blindfolds, walking in circles, and drawing pictures as someone controlled their arms, all in an attempt to understand a complex issue that thousands of people cope with every day.

The event offered participants and complimentary lunch, and pamphlets of information about what to do when overwhelmed by a disability. The day ended with all of the guest speakers gathering on the stage in the Atwood ballroom and participants filling out questions for the panelists to answer. The guest speakers were open and honest as they answered personal questions about their disability, their job prospects, and even their sex lives. Cross welcomes these questions, believing that the curiosity is a good thing because it’s the beginning of progress.

“The more awareness there is out there the better the world is going to be,” Cross said.

Cross and Herbert-Knopf enjoyed seeing the amount of people who participated in the event, and are excited to see what changes the program will bring in the future. Students left the event with a newfound knowledge of disabilities and the idea that a new attitude towards an issue can make the difference.