Not everyone has respect for the handicapped

Keshia Knight, Co-Editor-in-chief

The first thing you notice about Amber Hernandez is not the friendly smile on her face: it is the yellow Labrador retriever guiding her wheelchair around SRJC.

Hernandez was born with optic atrophy and the slow scarring of the optic nerve caused her to go blind at age 16. After an accident six years ago, she bound to a wheelchair. These challenges have not hindered Hernandez from receiving a degree in early childhood development from Northern Arizona University or from working toward a certificate in audio production for digital media from SRJC.

When Hernandez started at SRJC, she said, it was difficult to navigate as a blind and physically handicapped person. Hernandez relied on a white cane to guide her wheelchair. Fall was the first semester Hernandez used the help of a seeing eye dog named Rufus to get around.

“It’s an amazing feeling to walk with a seeing eye dog,” Hernandez said. “It feels like freedom.”

But Hernandez has encountered some problems as a disabled person with a guide dog. While the Disability Resources Department and SRJC help accommodate Hernandez’s wheelchair in classes and provides the technology to complete class work, the biggest problem Hernandez faces is interacting with other SRJC students.

At least once a day Hernandez encounters strangers who insult and shout offensive remarks toward her and Rufus. She is often called “a dumb bitch,” and that is the least offensive remarks shouted at her on a daily basis.

Rufus is trained to lead Hernandez around obstacles, making sure her wheelchair does not go off a curb or cut into the grass. Even though Rufus tries to lead Hernandez away from harm, sometimes he guides her chair too close to people.

“People have a problem if Rufus gets too close to them or my controller hits them,” Hernandez said. “And even if I apologize people still think I’m the wrong one.”

Hernandez said she is not sure if people realize Rufus is there to help with her disability and is not meant to be a nuisance. She believes if people understand students with disabilities are the same as other students on campus, there is a greater chance the SRJC community can peacefully interact with each other.

“We have all the same rights as able-bodied students to be here at SRJC,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is one of more than 3,000 students who use the services provided by the Disability Resources Department. The DRD provides people with disabilities “equal access to a community college education through specialized instruction, disability related support services and advocacy activities.”

Students who require the services the DRD provides are a part of the SRJC community striving to complete an educational goal.

“The kinds of issues students with disabilities deal with are the full gamut all of you [students] deal with,” said Patie Wegman, Dean of Disabled Students Programs & Services. “They are JC students too. The kinds of issues and struggles they have in working on their educational goals are the same as everybody else.”

Wegman said students with disabilities have an added layer of disability management to navigate, but “it is what it is” and does not separate the students from the rest of the student body.

SRJC student April Hurley, who has temporary mobility issues and requires a wheelchair, says that even though she is a part of the SRJC student body, sometimes she feels like an outcast among fellow students.

“There are times I’ll be going across the Emeritus quad, and I ask people to kindly move so I can get by and they just stare at me,” Hurley said. “It’s like I inconvenience them by being in a wheelchair.”

There have been cases of reported conflict with students with disabilities and other students and faculty and staff, and the DRD finds the best way to deal with conflict is through one-on-one case management.

“It becomes a teaching moment for both parties and another way to understand how to approach students with disabilities,” Wegman said.

But not all cases of conflict are reported to the DRD. Some students may not feel comfortable talking about problems that arise in classes and on campus.

For example, A. Dreamer, senior Sign Language interpreter with the DRD, says there have not been specific complaints, but deaf or hearing-impaired students may feel uncomfortable in class with the use of interpreters, captioners or note takers.

“Sometimes when students [deaf or hearing impaired] show up to class with an interpreter, people may not know how to respond,” Dreamer said. “Students might pay more attention to the interpreter than the instructor and it becomes a problem. They are focusing on the student with the interpreter, which can be troublesome.”

While SRJC instructors are accommodating to students with disabilities, there are times students can be inadvertently singled out. Whether they know it or not, instructors may leave deaf or hearing impaired students out of group activities because interpreters are with them to form a group, or show films in dark classrooms where hearing impaired students cannot see the interpreter. This creates a type of social isolation for these students.

“They [deaf students] are here for education, socialization just like any other student,” Dreamer said. “They want to exchange ideas too. I think it’s hard for instructors to put down those barriers so all students can experience each aspect of college.”

Santa Rosa Junior College strives to make “higher education accessible for everyone.” The school has made the campus accessible for all types of students, but there is no way for the administration to make sure the student body makes this college accessible to their fellow students.

“Students should be observant of their surroundings and not look down on those who can’t see or get by,” Hurley said. “People should share the campus and the sidewalks with others.”

The sign in the DRD office that says, “Some disabled people may not need physical assistance but may need your willingness to understand,” reflects the idea Hernandez wants to express to SRJC students on the importance of interacting with disabled students.

“You can not catch my disability and you can’t let it be the reason you treat me badly.” Hernandez said.

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