University holds annual Students with Disabilities Panel

By Bridget Gum-Egan

For the past 21 years, Rider’s Psychology Learning Community (PLC) and the office of Student Accessibility Support Services (SASS) have co-hosted the annual Students with Disabilities Panel. This panel brings together students with a variety of physical, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, mental and chronic illnesses as well as both visible and invisible disabilities.

At its conception, psychology professor Chrystina Dolyniuk often spearheaded the coordination of the panel along with Barbara Blandford, the former director of the SASS office. Though she originated the idea of the panel and organized many since, this year she took a step back from some of the responsibilities because it has run much more smoothly than in its early years. 

As a result, another psychology professor, Jennifer King, began to take more of an active role in the responsibilities on the PLC side to the panel. King explains how the opportunity to host this panel is open to all PLC mentors; however, these specific mentors, Delaney Putt and Meg Ryan, were selected after considering each mentor’s interest, availability and experience. 

King has professional experience working with individuals with disabilities as a licensed psychologist, but also explains why the PLC co-hosts this panel with SASS. “The PLC co-hosts this event as it aligns with our mission to foster belonging/community and promote the academic and personal success of students, particularly those within the field of psychology” she said.

Finally, the SASS office provides the most crucial aspect to the panel: the students themselves. Though Christine Psolka, the current director of SASS, was key in organizing the panel this year, she explained how her predecessor, Blandford had previously taken on the brunt of running the panel.

Psolka’s primary role in the panel was selecting the students with disabilities who would participate in the panel. 

“The first consideration we have is that we have a group of students that are present with a variety of disabilities as eclectic as possible. The second consideration we have is if someone has done the panel, we’d rather look for somebody else,” Psolka said “The third consideration is [who responded to] the announcement from our ListServ, which does not mean it includes everybody with a disability because if a student is not connected with our office, they’re not going to get it.”

Psolka also explained that there are particular personality traits that she looks for. “We specifically said … that we are looking for someone who’s very self-aware, knowledgeable about their disability, comfortable being very open with it and feeling like they could articulate … what they wanted to say in a more formal setting.”

At the end of this extensive screening process, Psolka and the SASS office came up with their list of students: freshman musical theater major Emily Kaufman, senior psychology major Olivia Paone, junior arts entertainment industry management (AEIM) major Rachel Seigerman, freshman game and interactive media design major Isaiah Ward and graduate student for counseling Jessica Kunz. 

Essentially, PLC mentors moderated the panel by asking questions and giving each student a chance to answer each question. The students covered a variety of topics related to their disabilities and what their lives are like, sharing beautiful stories, sad and challenging moments and everyday life experiences. 

Each participant spoke about their disability, but a common experience that frustrated them was their struggles with accommodations. Seigerman, who has visual perceptual disorder, which is a cognitive disability, expressed how she actually has fewer accommodations in college, which is how she became a frequent visitor at the academic success center. 

“Since I know that I learn differently, I can use that to help others because everyone learns differently,” said Seigerman, who now serves as a tutor there. She has since learned to use her disability to her advantage and manage with the accommodations she has. 

Kaufman agreed with Seigerman on the accommodations, as she was shocked by Rider’s attendance policy.Though she was stressed by this fact, she spoke more about the disconnect she feels from abled people, like her family and friends. 

Kaufman, who has type 1 diabetes, said “While their responses are kind and supportive because they’re my friends and family and they care about me, they don’t always respond in the ways I want them to because they don’t fully understand what I am going through.”

Sadly, none of these panelists had a shortage of horrible stories from bullying. Ward, who has cerebral palsy, recounted a time when some kids at his old school played the song “Plug Walk” whenever he walked by because he walks differently. He also talked about how non-disabled people love to tell him what he can or can’t do. This only motivates him more. “I’m kind of like OK, cool. And then I do it anyway,” said Ward.

Paone shared similar bad experiences. Unfortunately, hers was with a teacher who used specific qualities to help her remember her students’ names. Paone, who has obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, was remembered because she has mental illnesses. 

However, Paone has also had many positive experiences with teachers. She sang the praises of King and Robert Isenhower, another psychology professor, being brought to tears telling the stories of their kindness and compassion.

 “It [having a disability] kind of makes you a stronger person. Not every ordinary person has to or can deal with this every day,” she said.

Kunz, who has a visual impairment called amblyopia, gave some parting words about how she copes with the challenges she faces as well. Having experienced bullying and other difficulties, she spoke about the importance of kindness, both to others and herself. “Everyone can relate to being their own worst critic, so I just take a minute to be kinder to myself,” Kunz said.

Despite having completely different disabilities, each student could relate to one another because there were some recurring themes they each expressed. Some shared an all-too-common experience of pushing themselves too far. Many students praised the academic success center and the counseling center. One idea that echoed the loudest was the concept of equality versus equity. Paone explained that to her, this concept means, “giving us what we need, not what you think we need,” followed by enthusiastic nods and agreement from the other panelists. 

Although the panel was informative, there were a few minor accessibility concerns. The Rue Auditorium, where the event was held, had stairs to get onto the stage, and the designated accessible seating sections were blocked off by video equipment and other furniture. Not to mention, the whole auditorium was carpeted. Thankfully, none of the participants had an issue with these barriers, so the panel was able to run successfully. 

The panelists showed the larger Rider community the ups and downs of disabilities, but also about the strong sense of community just by being there together. Ultimately, despite the challenges, much of the Rider community who attended the event responded well to it, laughing and crying along with the panelists. “It’s [having a disability] a part of who I am,” Paone said. “But not the only part of me.”

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