Kate Strickland’s life changed in an instant six weeks into her freshman year at UT in the fall of 2013, when she was hit by a car while riding her bike.
“I became a quadriplegic (because) of a spinal cord injury,” said Strickland, a government and Plan II senior. “My life drastically changed from this incredibly athletic lifestyle to being in a power wheelchair.”
Student Government’s Disabilities and Inclusion Agency recently initiated a project in collaboration with disABILITY Advocacy Student Coalition and the Student Council for Exceptional Children to include disability awareness presentations in the safety and education training for student organization leaders. If implemented, this training would educate student leaders on how to be more inclusive of disabled members.
Strickland said she will be giving a presentation on this new training at the Leading and Learning Student Educator Forum Feb. 23, and then hopefully, the agency and SCEC will be able to send representatives upon request to present directly to student organizations.
Strickland, co-director of the Disabilities and Inclusion Agency, is one of the 2,800 students registered with Services for Students with Disabilities, the University’s office that provides accommodations for disabled students. She said one of the biggest challenges coming back from her injury was dealing with peer acceptance.
“When I went to rejoin my student organizations … I felt ostracized,” Strickland said. “They were so afraid of offending me that they didn’t include me in a lot of things … to the point I felt like nobody cared.”
After leaving those organizations to join the agency, Strickland said she noticed how much more welcoming the agency was because it is a disability-focused group. She said she felt all student organizations needed to be just as disability friendly.
DASC vice president Emeline Lakrout said besides issues of inclusion within organizations, there are several less obvious issues on campus for disabled people, including braille on classroom doors either being above the door or only saying the word “classroom” with no room number, and electric scooters being left in the middle of sidewalks and wheelchair ramps.
Emily Shryock, assistant director of SSD, said SSD and other offices try to address these issues, but they often rely on students to alert them of accessibility problems.
“Every semester, we work with the disability and inclusion agency of SG to host an open forum where students can talk directly to different campus representatives,” Shryock said. “We usually have the ADA coordinator, facilities services and parking and transportation provide a forum where a student could bring that type of concern, and those folks would be able to … address that as appropriate.”
Lakrout has a degenerative genetic condition which has caused her to be partially sighted, meaning she is legally blind but has some sight. She has a guide dog named Vega, and she said people often do not respect her or her dog when in public, sometimes petting Vega as they walk by.
Lakrout said her biggest goal is to have abled people understand they should treat disabled people as people, not as the “other.”
“People treat me how they think a disabled student wants to be treated — kind of cutesy, like a kid,” Lakrout said. “It can be really draining to manage that on a day-to-day basis, not being treated as who you think you project you are. It doesn’t suck that I’m blind. It sucks how people treat me sometimes.”
Correction: The photo caption has been updated to include the correct photo subject and appropriate language when referring to a disability. The Texan regrets this error.