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October 27, 2003

Lives not hindered by disability

From: The Daily Tar Heel - Oct 27, 2003

By Mary Beth Bardin Staff Writer

October 27, 2003

When it comes to involvement, Rebecca Williford is among the most active students at UNC.

The senior political science major is a tour guide, an unrelenting advocate for disability access and former student body secretary.

Her impact on the University community has been such that her contributions were honored with the Laura L.D. Thomas Access to the Journey Award earlier this month.

Williford also uses a wheelchair.

Last spring, she was one of 115 undergraduate and 52 graduate students with disabilities at UNC. Records have not been updated for the current semester.

"These students aren't different," said James Kessler, director of UNC Disability Services. "It's a medical condition. It's only one characteristic."

Hilary Franklin, a senior public policy major who has a hearing impairment, said there are no significant differences between her life and that of a nondisabled student.

"Everybody is basically the same," she said. "I'm just different in one fundamental way."

Students such as Franklin and Williford say they haven't let disabilities stand in the way of education or school involvement, even as some buildings are compromised by construction.

But some find social interaction to be slightly more challenging once they are off campus.

Though Disability Services provides assistance for students on campus, there are still some unavoidable drawbacks in other parts of Chapel Hill, such as Franklin Street."One of the problems is the ability to control the social environment," Kessler said. He emphasized that this is especially true for students with a visual impairment.

Going out downtown can present some difficulties for students with disabilities, although most said they find ways around impediments.

Mark Burnett, manager of the bar He's Not Here, said that because of the age of the building there is not a way for wheelchair-bound patrons to go upstairs. But, he said, "When we have the outside bar there's not a problem."

There are also concerns for students with hearing impairments. "Chapel Hill does not have a deaf community," Kessler said. "There's some social isolation, particularly for students who do not communicate through lip reading."

Some social obstacles for those with hearing impairments can be overcome on campus through interpreters if Disability Services is notified about the need. Kessler cited a speech Feb. 5, 2002, by George Stephanopoulos as an example of an interpreter-attended event.

Additionally, PlayMakers Repertory Company offers a full-access performance of its plays the first Friday after each opening night.

Sign language interpreters and Braille programs are available at the performances, as are assistants who explain the scenes for those with visual impairments. The box office works in conjunction with an outside operator who allows hearing impaired students to order tickets on the phone.

Options such as these have helped bridge social differences between all types of students. "Students don't come to Carolina for Disability Services," Kessler said. "They come for the great educational opportunities here, and it is our job to make that accessible."

Franklin said she thinks her communication with others is successful. "I'm a people person," she said. "Having a good attitude and personality helps a lot."

As one of only four UNC students with a hearing impairment who uses American Sign Language, Franklin said that while she is pleased with her ability to communicate with other students, she still sees room for improvement. "American Sign Language is the third most used language, and the University doesn't offer any classes," she said.

Most students said they have not let slight inconveniences stand in the way of a social life, citing their positive experiences. "I haven't found anything I can't do," said Williford.

In life outside of classes, some students with disabilities stressed that they were just as capable of doing things as nondisabled students.

"Everything isn't exactly easy, but you don't really notice. You adapt," said Stacy Bennett, a junior psychology major with a mobility impairment. "I go out and do things like everybody else."

Alex McLin, a junior computer science major who has a hearing impairment, said that today there are many opportunities for students with disabilities.

"It took a lot of work and mutual understanding to bridge between different people," he said. "It's been shown over and over again that a disability does not necessarily equal incapability."

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