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Remembering why I took this position

November 26, 2013

“Have you ever talked to someone with a disability, in a non-professional setting?” I was asked during one of my interviews for my USA TODAY College article last week. “No,” I replied, and proceeded to listen in awe as the woman across the table from me at the Kansas Union told me she doesn’t understand why people are afraid to have that conversation. She showed no nerves.

I heard about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities through a friend at the Dole Institute, and upon further research, I learned of the advances in accommodating people with disabilities that the University of Kansas has made in recent years. I decided to write a USA TODAY College article about how universities are accommodating people with disabilities because I wanted to tell this story of students and schools making a difference in their communities. Sharing those stories could cause other students and schools to start doing the same.

The woman I talked to at the Kansas Union last Thursday has autism. The first question I ask my interview subjects when I begin any interview is for them to spell their name for me. This time was no different, but when she responded, she not only verbalized the letters, but she also signed them using American Sign Language. Immediately, I knew this would be a different kind of interview. I listened and watched as she described how students in AbleHawks & Allies did bathroom checks and can’t look at a bathroom the same way now and as she discussed how KU is opening doors (as she made the sign for opening a door) and creating a welcome environment for all Jayhawks.

Because of the nature of the collegiate correspondent position, most of my interviews are over the phone, but being able to sit down in person for this one allowed it to have a profound effect on me, so much so that I’m still thinking about it days later. I’m grateful to have been able to have this experience.

Last week, I talked to a blind student, a graduate who has autism and two student presidents of campus organizations that advocate for the rights of students with disabilities at various universities. I hope I was able to do them each justice in the 650-word story because these four individuals are truly inspiring to me. Not only did they make me think about little things differently, but I don’t think I will ever be able to walk into a building the same way. I will look for handrails in bathrooms, accessible front entrances and braille.

A lot of people are scared to talk about disabilities. They don’t want to offend anyone or say the wrong thing, and that’s totally understandable. However, if we let our walls down and have these types of conversations, changes will be made. The University of Kansas is constructing a new, accessible entrance to the front of Strong Hall, and that’s because people pushed for that change to happen and didn’t stop until they found success. Lessons such as that can be applied to any university and any issue. When we realize that, we are unstoppable.

When I was trying to decide what to write about for USA TODAY College last week, I became transfixed on something my high school journalism adviser told me. I was feeling a little disillusioned by journalism a few weeks ago, but my high school journalism adviser told me to, “Be the valiant one. Don’t get sucked into anything else” and reminded me why I took the collegiate correspondent position and am pursuing journalism. I want to do good for the world.

At the very least, writing my article, “Universities work to improve accommodations for students with disabilities,” did good for me.

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