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Disabilities and Civil Rights

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Guest column Melinda Gunning, director of academic and disability support services

Just as my generation grew up under the (then) recently enacted Civil Rights Act of 1964, today’s traditional-age college student has grown up under another important piece of civil rights legislation: the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA of 1990, amended in 2008 to clarify its original intent. People often forget that “diversity” is about so much more than race and ethnicity. When I take the time and effort to look at the world through the perspective of someone with a specific disability, my mind expands. Through listening to the stories of students and sometimes by literally walking beside them, I have experienced our campus when the sidewalks, buildings, grass and trees cannot be seen; a math test when the numbers, letters and symbols appear inconsistent with what the professor has written on the page; the struggle to remain in the present when horrifying memories and feelings of other times and situations are triggered by seemingly random stimuli.

American colleges and universities have been admitting students with a wide variety of disabilities at a rapidly increasing rate. College students are also increasingly more likely to admit to having so-called unseen disabilities of varying cognitive and health issues that affect the way otherwise capable and intelligent people perform typical academic tasks. When I first took the role of working in the Services for Students with Disabilities Office in 2009, I could easily name each of the handful of students receiving accommodations. Today I rely on lists and computer files to remind me of the unique qualities of each of the approximately 100 students spanning all aspects of the university.

While it gives me great joy to attend the senior project presentation of a student who no one thought could ever complete a college degree, the thing that gives me even more joy is to see how our students, faculty and staff respond when they truly understand the unique challenges that a disability poses in the life of an individual. I see on-campus housing staff carefully choosing just the right room or combination of roommates for someone whose physical or mental health issues limit what that person can do and how they interact with the world; I see professors willing to explore alternative testing methods so they can assess a student’s knowledge and not just their ability to take a test; I see students saving a seat for a classmate who cannot tolerate change or someone who cannot hear the professor well from any other seat in the classroom; I see administrators finding a way to purchase technology that can make material available that was previously inaccessible.

While the number of students with disabilities attending college is on the rise, there are still many students hesitant to admit to having a disability or afraid that requesting accommodations is a form of manipulating a system to get unearned benefits. Just as our society struggles for true racial equality, we also struggle to eradicate the stigma of disabilities. The unseen disabilities of mental health challenges and learning differences are the hardest for all of us to understand in others and to accept within ourselves.

But in seeing the perseverance of students with unique and often mind-blowing challenges, and in seeing the way members of Fresno Pacific University accept and encourage students who experience college differently, I am encouraged that one day true civil rights may become a reality. Fresno Pacific University is conscientiously working to embrace the ethnic and economic diversity of the Central Valley. Let us not forget our often silent neighbors whose disabilities need to be accommodated fairly so that we can experience the world in mind-expanding ways.