On December 2nd, FRCC celebrates International Day for People with Disabilities, a day that aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and to mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. The 2022 theme is innovation and transformative solutions for inclusive development.
At Front Range Community College and on other college campuses, it’s not hard to see how important it is to create an inclusive and accessible environment for all students, employees and others visiting campus. Not only does inclusiveness create a culture of kindness and acceptance, it gives students with disabilities the opportunity to reach their potential in the classroom.
Facts About People with Disabilities
What exactly is a disability? The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as someone who falls into one of these categories:
- Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
- Has a history or record of such an impairment (such as cancer that is in remission)
- Is perceived by others as having such an impairment (such as a person who has scars from a severe burn)
Disability is a category that includes people from every race, gender, sexual orientation, geographic area, age and socioeconomic level. In fact:
- One in four (26%) U.S. adults have some type of disability.
- The percentage of adults with one of six disability types are:
- Mobility: 13.7%
- Cognitive: 10.8%
- Independent living: 6.8%
- Hearing: 5.9%
- Vision: 4.6%
- Self-care: 3.7%
- 19% of undergraduates in 2015-2016 reported having a disability.
Some call people with disabilities “the largest minority group.” There’s a good chance you know someone with a disability… maybe even a classmate at FRCC.
Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment
At FRCC, the Office of Disability Support Services works to ensure all students have the support they need to be academically successful. These teams on each FRCC campus strive to create an inclusive learning environment, offer robust support systems and reduce barriers to education.
Raymond Carleton, director of disability support services at the college’s Westminster Campus, says that the services his team provides are broad, yet all intended to help students embrace who they are. “We talk about disabilities here in a way that reminds students to acknowledge, value and appreciate themselves,” he says. “We remove barriers and make it easy for students to ask for help.”
International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Raymond adds, supports the acceptance of people with disabilities. “People shouldn’t have to deny part of themselves to get support they need,” he says. “This day is a reminder to support people’s disability identity.”
Changing the Narrative, Accepting Support
Students with disabilities face challenges that others do not—and those challenges vary widely depending on the student’s disability. “Invisible” disabilities like those that are cognitive in nature and aren’t always obvious to others are easy to overlook for years until students begin advocating for themselves.
That was exactly the case for Matt Hise, an FRCC student who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at the age of 24. He’s now 26 and working on his Associate of Science degree in computer science at FRCC (with plans to transfer to the University of Colorado Boulder to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science).
“Having accommodations in place has completely changed my school experience,” says Matt, who became a firefighter after graduating from high school and earned an EMT certificate at FRCC in 2019.
“The college experience is not the same for everyone. I think acknowledgement of that is critical in getting students with disabilities the support they deserve. For me, support and accommodations have reduced my anxiety and made college much less daunting. I feel like I’ve been given equal opportunity to earn a college education.”
Powerful Words: Equal Opportunity
Equal opportunity is a term that holds great meaning for FRCC student Megan Hoffman, too. She says she’s learned throughout her life to speak up for herself and her needs. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and dyslexia, which can make tasks like homework and studying overly difficult without support and accommodations.
“Everyone should have an equal opportunity to earn an education,” she says. Hoffman worked as a medical assistant for seven years before going back to school at FRCC in fall 2022.
She plans to earn an associate degree, then transfer to the University of Colorado Boulder to earn a bachelor’s in psychology. “I want to work in the area of behavioral health or addiction so I can help others. We all matter, and we all need help sometimes.”
Gabriel Gates, coordinator for disability support services at the Westminster Campus, says that there have been great strides toward creating inclusive environments in the workplace and in educational settings.
“Thankfully, there are disability laws that ensure individuals with disabilities get the resources and tools they need to participate in everyday activities,” he says. “However, we have to continue working on implementing a universal design to build a more robust inclusive environment.
“Currently, individuals with disabilities are required to self-identify and disclose having a disability. That’s why we must promote awareness, understanding and acceptance in order to remove any remaining barriers that hinder a full inclusive experience.”
International Day of Persons with Disabilities holds important meaning for Gabriel. “It’s awesome to know that there are worldwide efforts that promote disability inclusion and human rights,” he says. “We need allies and advocacy groups, not only to amplify our voices, but to also walk alongside us and to celebrate disability rights accomplishments with us.”
Gabriel was one of 15 people to be appointed in September 2022 to Colorado’s Disability Services in Higher Education Advisory Committee. They will advise higher education leaders and policymakers on necessary services and best practices aimed at improving access and outcomes for students with disabilities in higher education.
…and Feeling Accepted
Paige Elliot moved to Colorado in 2022 in search of a community that would accept her as transgender. But she also sought acceptance as a student with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which she was diagnosed with after two deployments to Afghanistan (and four years in the Army).
She’s now working toward an associate degree in psychology at FRCC and plans to transfer to the University of Colorado Denver to earn a bachelor’s in psychology. One day, she hopes to work for the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“Knowing that I have PTSD, which affects my life in every way, has led to me receiving support from the Veterans Administration as well as FRCC,” she says. Finding an encouraging community at FRCC has made going to college a positive experience thus far.
“That’s so important because all people, including those with disabilities, need to know they aren’t alone. They need to know that there’s help available and plenty of people who struggle with the same things they do.”
Join FRCC in Supporting People with Disabilities
Peggy Copeland, director of disability support services at FRCC’s Boulder County Campus, offers two simple ideas for students, professors and other community members at FRCC to support students with disabilities:
- Read the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative’s web content accessibility guidelines and other helpful guidance. The W3C WAI strives to promote website usability for people with disabilities. Its guide provides simple tips on how everyone can make sure their emails and web content are accessible for people with disabilities. “This website is a great resource for professors as well as anyone who uses computers to communicate,” Peggy says.
- Understand people’s limitations by getting familiar with the Spoon Theory. The Spoon Theory is a visual way for someone to explain their physical and mental limitations as a person with disability. “People living with disabilities start each day with one or two handfuls of metaphorical spoons, but tasks that many of us take for granted require them to use a spoon for each,” Peggy says. “By the end of a day, they might have a few spoons left, but some days they might have none. It isn’t easy for many to understand what it’s like to manage certain conditions, but this is a simplified way to think of it—and a good way for students to explain to friends and family what they feel and live like.”
A final tip from Peggy: understand the diversity of the disability community. “There are people all around us living with disabilities—some visible, some invisible—and sometimes people become diagnosed with a disability and join the community suddenly,” she says.
“Disability absolutely needs to be a part of conversations around diversity and inclusion. The more we understand this, the more people with disabilities will feel accepted.”
Learn more about International Day of People with Disabilities at https://idpwd.org/.