The University Record, October 9, 2000

Video documentary highlights disabled students’ experiences

By Theresa Maddix

From left, students Heidi Lengyel, Jack Bernard and Carey Larabee sit on a panel to field questions on their experiences at U-M. The video documentary preceding the panel was made possible with support from Graduate School Dean Earl Lewis. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
The Michigan Union’s Kuenzel Room is regularly used for meetings—its look and feel that of many University locales, with dim light and chairs aligned in orderly rows. For the public premiere of the video documentary, “You Can Quote Me On That: Students with Disabilities at the University of Michigan,” the room was transformed into a configuration recent graduate Rachel Arfa would like to see become more the norm for events on campus. Two large screens—one for the documentary, one for captioning—were at the front of the room. The static rows of chairs were broken and seemed to be continually in motion throughout the evening—providing spaces for wheelchairs to fit in, giving visually and hearing impaired students the appropriate vantage points, and squeezing as many members of the audience as possible into the packed room.

The communication flow was different as well. Audience members looked up to the captioning screen when it was difficult to hear. The person who was signing in the front by the speaker passed along what was said to a sign language interpreter on the other side of the room, who then relayed the spoken word to the person putting up the captioning.

An equally fluid and uncut discussion of the experiences of students with disabilities from across the campus transpired. The video documentary featured about 15 students speaking frankly and bravely—many acknowledging that normally they do whatever is possible to keep their disability hidden—about their experiences at Michigan. Pat McCune, program coordinator of Dialogues on Diversity, wrote and produced the documentary as a first step towards enriching discussion and dialogue on disability concerns. Arfa, a recent graduate in American Culture, came to McCune with the idea.

Arfa and five other students who had been a part of the video came forward for a panel discussion immediately following the presentation. Other video participants joined the conversation from the audience. Panelists and audience members had nothing but positive feedback for McCune’s light touch in editing: “I was most impressed by the balance the video achieved,” kinesiology student Carey Larabee said, citing its inclusion of both positive and critical aspects of student experiences. “I really appreciate that there was not much analysis involved, which really allowed our opinion to be heard,” said education graduate student Cynthia Overton.

The video highlighted the positive, showing students zipping across campus and in and out of buildings in wheelchairs, crossing campus with walking canes and participating confidently in classes. Students talked with pride of the University—public health and medical student Mike Gonzales described the Medical School as “a large family,” and Larabee spoke favorably of his friends at West Quad.

Yet, many of the students’ stories were difficult to hear. Psychology student Heidi Lengyel told of an instructor asking her to stay after class, only to tell her she was making the other students uncomfortable and demanding that Lengyel get in front of the class and explain her disability. Uncomfortable herself, Lengyel went to the Office for Students with Disabilities for help.

Lengyel also explained that while the video portrayed her easily going through automatic doors, many campus buildings do not have these doors.

Larabee related an experience in which he was stuck in a bathroom in West Quad for a lengthy period, waiting for someone to come in and open the door so he could get out. Eventually, he had to call the Department of Public Safety to let him out.

Graduate student Laura Wernick spoke about the lack of mentors and role models within the University to help with issues of time and balancing a courseload with research, “mentors to tell me how am I going to do this.”

Overton “would like to see organizations that deal with cultural issues, deal more with issues of disability.” She spoke of receiving funding as an African American to attend a conference on diversity, but being turned down for a request to receive funding for a disability conference because “issues of disability don’t fall under culture.” (She pursued the matter and has other channels to go through in the future.)

“Education is not the only solution,” Law School alumnus, doctoral education student and staff member Jack Bernard said. “It takes real devotion. It’s more than just accommodating people. It’s more than just having people here. It’s really embracing people.”

“Seeing that there are so many people that feel the exact same way you do,” Gonzales said, “makes me realize that I’ve got to go forward. If there’s that many people with me, think how many people are coming behind me. I need to do something to make sure they get taken care of in ways I didn’t.”

A quick pass through the room following the panel provided an earful of conversational snippets—proud parents talking about why their son/daughter chose Michigan, disabled students not in the video seeking out profiled students to talk about their own experiences with narcolepsy, and others sharing their experiences using the campus’ assistive technology.

Interim Vice President for Student Affairs E. Royster Harper introduced the video with a message directed at the campus community: “They [those in the video] are men and women who will not be defined by their disability or confined by their disability. In some you will see their obvious disability. I want to encourage all of us to look for our own differences, so that we make sure we are not defined or confined by something outside of ourselves.”