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Disability week aims to educate students

Amanda Michaels | Monday, March 22, 2004

For senior Laura Hoffman, the efforts made during Disability Awareness Week to enlighten the campus about the realities of those with disabilities generate very personal results.Diagnosed with optic nerve atrophy in first grade – a condition which qualifies her as legally blind and makes everyday tasks such as driving impossible – Hoffman considers the annual event to be an integral step to fostering a more open community at Notre Dame.”One of the things that has bothered me is that disability is not often seen as an element diversity at Notre Dame,” Hoffman said. “I encounter those who have never known or experienced a disability, and they tend to evaluate people with disabilities not by their ability, but by their disability. It takes students who are open to other ideas in order for changes to be made in society.”In conjunction with Marissa Runkle, the Disability Awareness Week Coordinator at the Center for Social Concerns, Hoffman has helped put together four days of programs aimed at celebrating the value of those with disabilities and educating students about them. Best Buddies, an organization that pairs college students with adults who have developmental disabilities, is co-sponsoring the event, along with Saint Mary’s, Howard Hall, the Office for Students with Disabilities and the Junior Class Council.The week will start off with a Mass at the Basilica at 5:15 p.m. today, celebrated for students with disabilities and for those involved in volunteering with the disabled. “This year we are trying to integrate a faith component into the week,” Hoffmann said. We didn’t really have one in the past, but faith is so critical to the life of a person with a disability that I suggested we have a Mass to begin the week’s events.”Tuesday will feature a student panel discussion at 8 p.m. at Reckers on “The Impact of the Disabled.” There will be five student panelists, four of whom have disabilities and one of whom has a sister with cerebral palsy, who will share their experiences as students with or affected by disabilities. “I know that I want to talk about living with what is known as a ‘hidden’ disability because it wasn’t until my time at Notre Dame that I realized just how much having a disability that is not easily seen can be extremely difficult because people have a hard time understanding that you struggle or need help,” said Hoffman, who will be one of the panelists.Psychology professor Kathy Gibney will moderate the discussion, and it will include thoughts by coordinator of the Office for Students with Disabilities Scott Howland. Another faith component to the week is a Theology on Tap session on Wednesday at Legends at 9:30 p.m., which will explore the question of, “Is there such thing as a wrongful life?” During this time, Gibney and professor of biological sciences Michelle Whaley will moderate a discussion exploring the medical ethics of life support, abortion based on amniocentesis results and stem cell research.Finally, the keynote lecture of the week will take place on Thursday at 7 p.m. in 101 DeBartolo, featuring Patricia Stacey, author of the book “The Boy Loved Windows, Opening the Heart and Mind of a Child Threatened with Autism.” Stacey has experienced the impact of disabilities first-hand, as she taught her son how to communicate after he was diagnosed with autism that might render him unable to walk, talk, hear or see. She was interviewed by WebMD in September and wrote an article on her experiences for the “Atlantic Monthly” published in early 2003.The program coordinators said they hope that events throughout the week will serve to make students more open to students with disabilities, and more informed about their difficulties.”It’s important to value what people with disabilities bring to both our campus and society in general,” said Runkle. “That’s what this week is about, valuing people’s gifts and their abilities.”