Student disability panel validates visible and invisible conditions

As part of Disability Awareness Month, the Office of Specialized Services (OSS) hosted its yearly student disability panel last Wednesday, which was titled “See Us, Hear Us, Know Us.”

The panel was a student-led discussion featuring students with both visible and invisible disabilities, which included an audience Q&A at the end of the event. Helen Witte, a recent Ramapo graduate and OSS’ current assistive technology specialist, acted as the moderator. Witte herself is deaf and worked with OSS in receiving her accommodations.

Abbe Benowitz, the OSS disability counselor, opened the panel with praise for Witte’s work and her feelings on this yearly panel.

“It really is my favorite program of the month because it gives our students the opportunity to share their stories, gives you an opportunity to ask questions and it just presents disability in a different way. I think it gives us all a chance to hear what’s really going on behind the faces of people who you just see in the hallway,” she said.

The first question centered around how the panelists view their own disabilities in regards to the two major models: the social model and the medical model. The social model views disability as being caused by the way society is organized. If barriers are removed and society fully integrates disabled individuals, then disability would cease to exist.

The medical model is an approach that looks at the medical diagnoses as the disability and the impairments that result from it. All of the panelists said they view themselves under the medical model, although 28-year-old pre-med major Georgia Agrapidis said she views her disability as a combination of both.

Panelist Adam Foye, a computer science major, has myopathy, a neuromuscular disorder that causes muscle weakness and hearing loss. He primarily uses a wheelchair to move around and said the medical aspect of his disability is always present in his life.

“For me, the medical aspect doesn’t ever go away because it’s something I have to keep up on,” he said. “I have to, you know, see specialists for all different things and that does affect my life from day to day and from year to year.”

Agrapidis has ADHD with a processing and auditory comprehension disorder. She said that as she grew older, she started to notice the way her feelings towards her disability have changed.

“I definitely took that on as an identity growing up and I definitely did not meet the standards I have now. I did not believe in myself like I do now…” she said.

Another question to the panelists involved personal experiences with acceptance and how they feel we can better build awareness for disabilities.

Jazmin Molina, a senior music industry major, has multiple invisible disabilities, including fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder that causes widespread pain and tenderness. It is the disorder Molina mostly spoke about since the chronic pain from flare-ups impacts her life the most. She said she advocates for herself when she needs to, but otherwise keeps her disability to herself. She cited work issues and employers either not hiring her or not understanding her condition. 

“I would always keep it to myself until I got hired. And then it was just difficult because I know even at my current job I have a bad day. A bad flare up day. I can’t show up to work. And they’re like ‘Just take a Tylenol or just take an aspirin.’ It doesn’t work like that,” she said.

She said understanding in the workplace depends on the boss or the environment. She currently works in a pharmacy and said her boss understands since he is a pharmacist and knows a bit about fibromyalgia.

Jack Machiaverna, a computer science major with a central auditory processing disorder, said his disability has gotten better as he has grown older. However, he said he has not had friends or co-workers understand his disability and will explain it to them.

“One of my coworkers is talking to me about something or like ‘Oh Jack, do this’ and I don’t really respond or do anything. They’re asking me what’s going on and all that and it makes me feel embarrassed and a little bit angry at myself. And the way I dealt with that is I tried my best to explain it to coworkers as well as friends about it,” he said.

“So for the future, if I ever have a moment like that, they will hopefully understand.”

Photo by Matthew Wikfors.