Disabled students share their stories to build pride, awareness and community

March 1, 2022
By: Rebecca Cross

Looking at Ariana Casasanta ’22, you wouldn’t know she has a disability. Casasanta has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disease that sometimes causes mobility issues, fatigue, and pain, so she takes the elevator rather than the stairs. She often experiences ableism and judgment from people who don’t realize she’s disabled. “I really would like to see more open-mindedness and patience from people,” says the mathematics major.

Casasanta shared her story on Feb. 16 during a panel discussion with other Worcester State students focused on the experiences of disabled students. The annual In Our Shoes panel aims to connect other disabled students with a larger community, to increase disability pride and to raise awareness among nondisabled students and staff of the varied issues disabled students face.

Karen Shalev wears glasses and a black shirt and smiles at the camera

Karen Shalev

The topic of “educating” nondisabled people is one that is fraught within the disability community. Panel moderator Karen Shalev ’22, a visual and performing arts major, acknowledged this. “We [disabled people] are the ones who usually have to do the educating, and that’s a really big burden.” She praised the panelists for being willing to take on that burden and be advocates for themselves and other disabled students.

Shalev, who has Crohn’s disease, could relate to Casasanta’s story and shared her own experiences with people judging her for using the elevator or parking in an accessible spot. “Those things really add up,” she said, “because it’s constant. It’s day after day, minute after minute, dealing with it. And most people don’t get it.” Something as small as being able to take the elevator, she said, “could be the difference between making or breaking the day.”

Helping nondisabled people understand issues like these was a theme throughout the event. Students with disabilities, Shalev said, “want to get across that this is who we are, and disability pride is a really big part of that.”

Tracey Michael speaks into a microphone while seated at the panel table

Tracey Michael

For Tracey Michael ’22, a criminal justice major with cerebral palsy, speaking on the panel was, “a good opportunity to show people on campus that we have abilities just like them and we have minds just as strong as them. We’re capable of things, too. We just need a little help sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Criminal justice major Jason Martinez ’22, who has a spinal injury and uses a wheelchair, said, “It’s important to embrace who you are with your disability. It’s going to be a part of you for the rest of your life.” 

Taylor Dube ’22, a student in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, only recently discovered that she has ADHD after years of struggling in a system with numerous barriers for people like her. “I don’t want other people to go through what I’ve experienced,” she said. “It’s okay to get help. It’s not a bad thing. In the end, it’s only going to make you stronger.”

The panel discussed the importance of accommodations such as having note takers and flexibility with deadlines, exams, and attendance. “Without accommodations,” Shalev said, “I would not be able to complete any of my assignments, be involved with any extracurricular activities, and, to be completely honest, would have probably dropped out after my first semester.”

Even with accommodations, the students said they sometimes face challenges if a faculty member proves to be unsympathetic. President Barry M. Maloney acknowledged that the University still has work to do to help disabled students feel the same sense of belonging nondisabled students do. “Our disabled students are an essential part of the Worcester State community,” he said as part of his opening remarks for the event.

Jason Martinez speaks into a microphone while seated at the panel table

Jason Martinez

Dr. Nicole Rosa, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and faculty advisor for the Delta Alpha Pi Honor Society, said, “Our students are not asking for us to make this experience easy; they’re just asking for us to make it possible for them to be successful.”

Worcester State’s Student Accessibility Services is focused on breaking down barriers for disabled students. Shalev called them “the backbone of students with disabilities on campus” and said, “Their dedication, their hard work, their nonstop advocacy for students with disabilities has changed my life, and I’m sure has changed many students’ lives as well.”

Shalev was optimistic about the future for disabled students at Worcester State. “Here on campus we can create a more inclusive community. We have the power to do it.”

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