Individuals with disabilities make up the largest minority in the United States, but misconceptions about their lives still exist.
Lizzie Ford, a senior psychology student at Ball State University, is the secretary of the Student Government Association, is involved in Sigma Kappa sorority, and was an RA her sophomore year.
For Lizzie, though, daily tasks like getting dressed in the morning take longer and can be difficult because she has cerebral palsy. Lizzie uses a wheelchair, which means she must also
find ramps wherever she goes and needs access to automatic doors—both around campus and for her dorm room. Lizzie’s room is arranged to accommodate her wheelchair, and she has a roll-in shower. A note-taker helps her in each of her classes.
Cerebral palsy characterizes a group of disorders that impact movement and muscle control, according to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation. It is caused by damage to the brain during pregnancy or soon after birth.
While the experience is different for every person, people with disabilities face difficulties that many others never have to experience and often do not understand. But Lizzie’s disability doesn’t stop her from participating in the same activities as other college students.
Larry Markle, director of Disability Services at Ball State, defines a physical disability as a type of impairment that affects the daily activities that others take for granted, including, but not limited to, walking and sitting. Living with a physical disability is not uncommon. Those with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the world, according to the United Nations.
Markle works with students who have disabilities on a case-by-case basis to fulfill the needs of each individual. In order to do so, Markle meets with each student to determine what assistance is needed.
Students with physical disabilities can have academic accommodations, which include more time for exams, access to scribes, conversion of textbooks into digital form, an adaptive technology lab in the Robert Bell Building designed for people with disabilities, and dictation software. These students can also have accessible housing and access to a shuttle system that provides door-to-door transportation.
One important thing to remember about the definition of a physical disability, according to Lizzie, is that it can vary a lot. She says her specific physical disability is an example of this.
The effects and symptoms vary based on where the brain damage happens to be. So, as Lizzie explains, some people could have severe physical symptoms as well as moderate or severe intellectual disabilities. Others have mild physical and severe intellectual disabilities. Some even have severe physical symptoms but little to no intellectual disability.
There are several misconceptions in society when it comes to disabilities. Lizzie and Markle both say that one common misconception is that physical and intellectual disabilities are synonymous. This idea is based on the perception that the more physically debilitating a disability is, the more intellectual disability there must be. But that’s just not the case.
Markle also says students with disabilities must meet the same admissions and program requirements as any other Ball State student.
Lizzie says people sometimes think those with disabilities want to collect disability checks without working. But most people with disabilities don’t like receiving benefits and work hard to get off of them, she says.
Microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination, can often occur without people realizing it. People might even believe they are giving a compliment. Microaggression is the most common form of discrimination Lizzie deals with.
Another misconception, which Lizzie refers to as a “disability cliché,” centers around the notion that those with disabilities don’t enjoy the same activities as those without disabilities. Sometimes people will be surprised to see someone with a disability doing things outside of their home. However, those with disabilities have the same potential as anyone else to be active members of their communities.
Lizzie also warns to never say those with disabilities are inspiring for getting up in the morning, as no one else is praised for the simple actions of getting up and completing daily activities.
Markle says Ball State is the first university in the country to have a soccer team designed for people who use powered wheelchairs. This team competes against other clubs across the country. Markle aims to make sure students with disabilities have the same opportunities as those without, which includes making sure they can participate in student organizations.
Communities can support those with disabilities by making sure events and activities are accessible. This allows them to be more active and involved in their communities.
Ball State is accessibility-focused. Markle says there’s not a classroom on Ball State’s campus that isn’t accessible to wheelchair users.
Ball State also offers a faculty mentorship program for freshmen with disabilities. Students are connected with faculty members within their majors that can help with the transition into college. More recently, Ball State also started helping students with disabilities transition out of college.
Lizzie says Disability Services can provide smart pens, closer parking passes, testing accommodations, and letters to professors. These are only a few possible options. Students receive accommodations based on their individual needs.
The unemployment rate for those with disabilities was twice the rate for those without disabilities in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Markle believes this results from societal misconceptions and stereotypes regarding disability. Ball State partners with Eskenazi Health, a company that provides health care in downtown Indianapolis, to offer full-time, paid internships for college students with physical disabilities.
Last year, Lizzie was the president of the Alliance for Disability Awareness. This student organization at Ball State works to raise awareness and spread information about disabilities. Lizzie believes education can drive out misconception.
But she says not all education strategies are beneficial. Some simulations, which allow people to experience elements of the lives of those with disabilities, are turned into challenges—can you spend one day in a wheelchair? But this short activity doesn’t capture the true experience of using a wheelchair every single day.
Based on research and her own experience, Lizzie believes the best way to eliminate misconceptions is to get to know those with disabilities personally. She has done this through discussion panels that allow people to share their stories about living with disabilities.