There are over 9,000 students with disabilities attending CUNY, according to Christopher Rosa, University Dean of Student Affairs and guest speaker at BMCC’s recent conference celebrating Disability Awareness Month, Beyond the Stigma: Mental Health in the Realm of Higher Education.
“BMCC has one of the largest enrollments of students with disabilities within CUNY, and one of the most diverse populations of students with a disability,” he said, "and this speaks to the remarkable expertise of the accessibility services BMCC provides. Nowhere is disability culture more vibrant or more prescient than it is at BMCC.”
Diversity in the ‘Modern University’
“Including people with disabilities is part of the culture of the ‘Modern University’,” Rosa said, referring to CUNY’s commitment to every student’s success, and added that, “having a disability serves as the nucleus of a community that is part of the rich diversity at BMCC.”
He credited VP of Student Affairs Marva Craig, and Dean of Student Affairs Michael Hutmaker “for their work for students with disabilities, who are becoming increasingly part of the academic and co-curricular life at BMCC.”
That inclusion, he said, heightens the likelihood that students with disabilities will access services to reach their full potential.
Starting fresh, with a new script
“People with a disability are not looking for a special advantage,” Rosa said. “All they’re looking for is a level playing field.”
Tilting that field, he said, are four main stigma-based “scripts” people often rely on, creating a moral, medical, rational or identity-based lens through which to view a person with a disability.
Dean Hutmaker took the concept one step further. “Being at BMCC is an opportunity for you, as students, to write a new script for yourself, and start fresh,” he said.
“Whether you are visiting the Office of Accessibility, the offices of career services or financial aid, the campus health services or other student services, we want you to succeed and will connect you with the resources to do that.”
Visible and invisible reasons to access services
“There are a lot of students whose disability is undisclosed or not diagnosed,” said Jessica Spalter, CUNY LEADS counselor at BMCC.
“Some examples of more obvious disabilities are students with visual impairment, or deaf students,” she said, and explained that learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, are not so easily observed.
“And then there are mental health diseases,” Spalter continued, “such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or even substance addiction which often go undiagnosed or untreated.”
“We provide services and referrals for all those students,” she said, “as well as for students with chronic health issues that impact their academic success, their stamina, or ability to focus—such as being HIV positive, or recovering from cancer.”
Interested in disability issues? Join the Club.
Soya Lawson, Video Arts and Technology major, volunteered at the event and is a member of Beyond the Limits, a BMCC club for students with disabilities and those interested in disability issues.
“The club creates awareness,” she said. “Anyone can join, not just students with a disability. We’re connecting people to resources on campus.”
Liberal Arts major Betty Spindelman, President of Beyond the Limits, “tutored a woman with mental health issues who saw a counselor and advisor on campus but was never advised to register with the Office of Accessibility,” she said.
Spindelman encouraged the student to access the array of services available at BMCC, and “she was finally given accommodations. Her grades are now two full letter grades higher than they were.”
LEADS counselor Spalter added, “It’s amazing what a few accommodations can do. I helped a student gain access to books on tape for one of her classes, and by the end of the semester, she had earned an ‘A’ on her final. We also help students with disabilities access various technical resources such as Dragon—that’s voice recognition software. They speak into a microphone, and it translates to text.”
In addition, she connects students to BMCC’s Single Stop office, which provides free tax preparation, housing and food stamp assistance, as well as financial and legal counseling.
“A lot of students with disabilities don’t know all their rights,” Spalter said. “They don’t know that they can’t be discriminated against, when it comes to their education or employment—hidden disability, or not.”
Focusing on ability
BMCC education major Carrison Codrington volunteered at the conference, and has learned about disability issues in caring for his son, who has ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
“It’s important for us to remember that people with disabilities have the ability to learn—they might just learn differently,” he said.
Marcos A. Gonzales, Director of the BMCC Office of Accessibility put it like this: “We believe our students are not disabled—they have a disability. They have abilities, and that’s what we concentrate on; providing access so they can use their abilities and be successful as students. BMCC is just one of the stepping stones of their lives, and when they transfer from here to other schools, we want them to have the skills to go forward and fulfill their goals.”
A look at the human brain
Exploring the brain’s role in ability, learning and even an individual's personality, the conference’s keynote speaker, psychologist Anthony Colarossi provided a visually enhanced lecture, “Psychological Learning and Attention Disorders: Impact on Academic and Interpersonal Behavior.”
Participants engaged in word games and shared their thoughts in activities throughout the talk.
“The left side of your brain picks up the words. The right side, picks up the tone,” Dr. Colarossi pointed out, as the audience viewed photographs of the human brain. He added that neuropsychological and other types of mental illnesses, “all impact upon academic and interpersonal behavior and are attached to stigma.”
Uniting for change
The CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities (CCSD), has a strong CUNY-wide presence, and representatives attended the BMCC conference not only to provide resources to students, but to talk with them about career paths in the field of disability rights and services.
Luis Gutierrez, CCSD Chair of Recruitment, is earning his MSEd—a master’s degree in special education—at Hunter College, and plans to work in rehabilitation counseling. “My ultimate goal is to work with teenagers with psychological issues,” he said.
Charmaine Worthy, University Coordinator of Student Activities, advises CCSD.
“Students with disabilities need to understand they have a voice,” she said, “that they control their destinies and if they unite they can change not only their own lives, but the world.”
Other organizations who set up information tables during the conference included Fountain Gallery, which represents artists with mental illness, and the Fountain House Young Adult Program (YAP), which provides services to young adults with mental illness.
Beyond the Stigma: Mental Health in the Realm of Higher Education was sponsored by BMCC's Division of Academic Affairs; The BMCC Office of Accessibility; Beyond the Limits, a BMCC student club, and the BMCC Student Government Association.