Students Advocate for Disabilities on Campus

Published in the Spectator:

Shandra Benito uses two words to describe her day: educate and advocate. These words consume her days as a student at Seattle University. As a part of Coalition for Students with Disabilities, Benito fights ignorance–which is surprisingly common on campus.

Many might argue that Seattle U is one of the least ignorant campuses in the PNW but ignorance can be broken into so many categories. The ignorance, of which Benito speaks, is that on disabilities. One would never guess that Benito was born Deaf, or that she reads lips to understand what in the world you are blabbering about.

When Benito came to Seattle U in 2009, she felt lost. “There’s no community for people with disabilities,” Benito said. “There’s no space for people who understand.” For this reason, she along with three other students are forming this Coalition for Students with Disabilities as well as the Disability Services Student Advisory Board.

CSD logo“We have three goals; the first is to create a space and voice for students with disabilities. The second goal is advocacy.” According to Benito, there is no organization on campus that can hold someone or a group accountable for when something regarding the disabled community goes wrong.

“Our final goal is education, the education of students and faculty in disabilities and to show them the gifts that these disabilities bring but also the needs.”

It goes without question that Benito is passionate about advocacy for disabilities. But her passion is even greater fueled by encounters she has had at Seattle University. An interpreter accompanies every class, lecture and meeting she attends.

Interpreters provided by Disabilities Services Office will then situate themselves across from Benito, and translate English to American Sign Language (ASL). This seemingly common and usual event has been difficult at times though. Professors used to ask Benito if the interpreter was her parent, a strange question to ask a junior in college.

When Benito explains the interpreter’s purpose, some professors begin to believe that Benito herself needs more help in the classwork, or they raise their voices when speaking to Benito—regardless of her being a Sullivan scholar. Other times professors have asked interpreters to move or “be less distracting”.

“They just have no idea have to act around a student with disabilities.”

Another student involved with the coalition is Alex Stoffel, a sophomore journalism major. Stoffel and her parents were faced with a decision to have a life changing surgery 13 years ago, that left her paralyzed. She sees this change as “not a loss of two legs, but a gain of four wheels.”

Her gain of wheels has also provided for frustration. With on-campus events and OAR trips, it is never a question of whether or not Stoffel can make time to attend, but also are these college experiences accessible, and what facilities define as “accessible”.

Every person is “temporarily able-bodied”, according to Stoffel. Circumstances can change in a second. An accident, spontaneous cancer or other illness can arise in a minute, a few weeks, a year. Once a person breaks their leg, is diagnosed with a form of cancer, or has an ear infection, their access to the world changes. One might not consider the difficulty for someone to go from the lower to upper mall on campus, unless they are in a wheelchair, or on crutches. Elevator access between malls is time consuming and limited. Printers, a basic in college lifestyle, become inaccessible if they are placed on high tables.

“It’s exhausting to have a disability,” Stoffel says. “It’s understandable why some people are bitter [when they have a disability].” But Stoffel is the opposite of bitter, and one of the most positive people at Seattle U. But she is tired, tired of the lack of advocacy on campus and the ignorance that she faces. “I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t had this happen to me,” she says.
Disability Services, located in Loyola 100, serves about 700 undergrad students at Seattle U campus, which is roughly 17 percent of undergrads. Rich Okamoto, Director of Disability Services, is well-aware of how thinly stretched the office is. He has worked closely with Benito, Stoffel and Natasha Hansen-Day with forming the Coalition for Students with Disabilities.

Okamoto hopes that the coalition will close the gap in the education of the community concerning disabilities as well as faculty members. The Disability Services office provides mostly academic and housing support for students with disabilities, which is in accordance with Act 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which requires public and private colleges that use federal funds must make their programs accessible to students with disabilities[1].

Okamoto, who has worked at Seattle U since 2000, understands the difficulties students face with identity, and thinks the coalition will help students with disabilities develop a voice on campus and also gain self-acceptance of themselves and their disabilities. “Its important that there is a place for students to interact with other students who have had similar experiences.”

Natasha Hansen-Day, a sophomore at Seattle U, could not agree with Okamoto more, “I only became more accepting of myself after talking to Shandra [Benito]. Through her I found that it was okay to be Deaf.” Hansen-Day was not born Deaf, but as a result of a cyst-removal in her right ear, she lost most of her hearing. Here at Seattle U, she alternates between lip-reading and a professional ‘real-time captioner’ to type out what is being said in the class. Before meeting Benito, Hansen-Day was unaware of Disability Services, and accordingly went without services her freshman year.

Hansen-Day is leaving Seattle U and transferring to University of Washington (UW). The disability services offered at UW far exceed that at Seattle U. They offer students the whole package of services, both academic and social. UW also offers a Disability Services major and minor. But Hansen-Day’s journey with Seattle U will not end when she transfers to UW next year, she is still excited to work with the coalition at Seattle U. Hansen-Day hopes to bring successful ideas from UW to Seattle U, as well as resources and overall excitement.

Along with the Coalition that will be forming is a Disability Services Student Advisory Board, which will allow users of Disability Services to directly inform the office what is needed and what is not.  The Board hopes to expand Disability Services towards what students need, and hopes to do so through sharing issues and ideas with the office.

The Coalition for Students with Disabilities is hosting a forum on May 30th at 4pm, in a location to be determined, to introduce itself to the community and also hold a campus climate to discuss disabilities and issues.

The members of the coalition are hopeful of the affects the group will have on campus, with education as well as widened access. Benito hopes when she graduates next year that Seattle U will have a structure, community, and place for students with disabilities.

If you have questions regarding the coalition, please email Shandra Benito at benitos@seattleu.edu.

If you have questions regarding the student advisory board, please email Alex Stoffel at stoffela@seattleu.edu.


[1] “Publications.” ADA Q & A: Section 504 & Postsecondary Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2013.