Graduate Pursuing His Dreams at the University of Northern Colorado
Today is the International Day of People with Disabilities. Started by the United Nations in 1992, this annual celebration recognizes and values the diversity of our global community and cherishes the role all people play—regardless of our abilities.
Recent FRCC graduate Sam White might have a disability, but as a high school upperclassman, he wasn’t that different from many of his peers. “I had no idea what I wanted to do as I finished up high school, but I knew that college was important,” he recalls.
Sam graduated from Erie High School in 2017. But unlike many of his classmates, he was dealing with much more than the typical uncertainty of a young adult approaching the real world.
Sam has Cerebral Palsy, which mostly affects the lower portion of his body. While he can walk, he uses a wheelchair often to get from place to place and lacks some fine motor skills as well. In school, what affected Sam most was his learning disability that has never been officially diagnosed with a label or name.
Tackling an Invisible Disability
“I don’t have dyscalculia or dyslexia exactly, but what it comes down to is that my brain doesn’t process information in the way that most people’s brains do,” Sam explains. “I can see words on a piece of paper, but the letters look like alphabet soup. So, reading was always my biggest challenge, followed by math. This learning disability affected me throughout my entire K -12 education.”
It wasn’t until the end of his junior year of high school that a teacher—and Sam’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) case manager—recognized that Sam would benefit greatly from adaptive technology as an accommodation. Learning to effectively use devices with tools like screen reading technology and dictation set him on a learning path that he’d never been on before—one that allowed him to feel much more confident and successful in school.
A Warm Welcome to College
In fall 2017, Sam enrolled at FRCC’s Boulder County Campus, taking two classes to start. “The warmness I felt as a student at FRCC was just so great,” he says. “The staff and teachers were very kind and welcoming.”
Though he initially set out to become a graphic designer, Sam’s struggles in an art class got his wheels turning. “The difficulty I had in that class made me realize that too many textbooks are not accessible. Too many parts of school in general are not accessible.”
New Ways to Learn
Sam began meeting regularly with Catherine Stager, assistive technology specialist at FRCC’s Boulder County Campus, to discuss how technology could help him. The Disability Support Services staff also teamed up with Sam’s math instructor, Lori Wright. She came up with new tools and techniques to help him understand math using tangible objects.
“It was so encouraging to have a new way to interact with the concepts,” says Sam.
“All of this made me realize that as a teacher, you can affect curriculum and make school more accessible.”
A Spark Ignited
While Sam was completing the course objectives in his math class, something else was happening too. “It was right in front of me, but I realized that I should become a special education teacher,” says Sam.
He called up his former high school teacher and IEP case manager to share his plans. “Working with the FRCC team that adapted the math class for me turned me onto this idea of the flexible learning environment and the Universal Design for Learning educational framework. It all just inspired me.”
Sam and the team at FRCC went on to present their efforts to adapt the math class for Sam at the 2020 Accessing Higher Ground conference, which focuses on the implementation of accessible media, university design and assistive technology in university, business and public settings.
Switching to Special Education
In spring 2019, Sam switched tracks and began working toward an Associate of Arts with the goal of transferring to the University of Northern Colorado. His plan: transfer to the University of Northern Colorado to earn a bachelor’s degree in Special Education. After that, he wants to earn a master’s in Special Education with an emphasis on visual impairment at UNC and a PhD in Special Education at UNC or elsewhere.
Sam started his UNC education this fall. He plans to graduate in 2024, and although further education is definitely in his future, he’s eager to jump into the classroom. “I want to teach for five years and then move into the administrative side of education,” he says.
Encouraged at FRCC
Sam describes FRCC as a “place of discovery.” “I was given the space to figure out what I wanted to do and provided mentors who pushed and questioned me to help me do that,” he says.
His message to other students with disabilities: You can do anything you want to do with drive and passion. “If you’d told the freshman-in-high-school Sam that in several years you will be doctorate bound, I would have laughed in your face. But I was given a lot of support and encouragement to get here.”
Striving for Change
While Sam says that special education in the United States has a long way to go, he’s ready and willing to be part of the solution. “It goes back to my own experience. I had one high school teacher who said, ‘Let me look at this student as a student and not just continue to throw pasta at the wall to see what sticks for him.’”
“There has to be a way to encourage all educators to take that viewpoint and understand that students like me do not learn like everyone else. I don’t want future students to be learning in the margins anymore. I want to make an impact.”