Human beings before disabilities

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The University of Indianapolis has about 200 students with disabilities such as health disorders, mental illness, learning disabilities, physical disabilities and sensory disabilities, according to Executive Director for Student Development Debbie Spinney. UIndy, along with Spinney, works to accommodate these students both in and out of the classroom.

“I think that it’s students with disabilities… [whose] abilities are underestimated,” Spinney said. “So just being that sort of cheerleader behind ­the scenes saying, ‘You can do it,’ watching them succeed and prove everybody wrong is really why I stay in it.”

One of the resources students with disabilities have is Baccalaureate for University of Indianapolis Learning Disabled. BUILD provides resources to help students complete their degree at UIndy.

For three UIndy students, one with a hearing impairment, one with autism and one with blindness, growing up with a disability has caused their lives to be a little different than the average student’s.


Photo by Madison Hays

Photo by Madison Hays

Sophomore sports management major Antwan Martin was three years old when he said he started to not to be able to hear his mother.  After being taken to the hospital for some testing, the doctors found out that not only him, but his two other brothers were partially deaf. Martin started out just wearing hearing aids, but now has a hearing aid in one ear and a cochlear implant in the other. His level of hearing impairment is considered to be severe to profound.

“Basically, I get deafer almost every day from what I know and what my graft is showing,” Martin said. “But with the equipment, my hearing is better…. The deafness goes down. I think it’s only a matter of time to where I’m completely deaf, and I won’t be able to hear at all, even with the technology that they have.”

Martin said that growing up, his mother was always his biggest supporter but was struggling to hold down two or three jobs while taking care of her four children, three of whom are deaf. Added to that, in school he had to deal with his difficulty learning a foreign language, the challenge of running track and bullies.

“That [bullies] was one of those hard things for me growing up,” Martin said. “I could never talk about it. It was people constantly making fun of the way I talk because I cannot speak well. I took speech classes when I was in elementary [school]. I couldn’t speak well, and I couldn’t pronounce things the right way.”

Martin’s trouble with speaking caused him to have trouble pronouncing the words in a foreign language. In high school, he took a Spanish course in which he said he would just mumble the words when the teacher called on him.

In any sport that Martin played, he said he had to find different ways to participate while wearing his hearing aid or implant. When he first started to run track in middle school, he had trouble with his hearing aids sweating out about every two weeks. He said it started to get too expensive, so he learned to wear a headband whenever he ran. After he had surgery for his cochlear implant in his junior year of high school, he could run with it, but he said he had to be very cautious so it did not fall off. While running for UIndy his freshman year, he said he chose not to wear his hearing aid or cochlear implant at all. However, that left him at a disadvantage, since he couldn’t hear the gun go off when the race started. The next year, he bought a cap to hold his hearing aid and implant in place while he ran.

During Martin’s first year at UIndy, he said he did not get any accommodations for his disability, since he did not let the university know about it. He eventually told them, and he now has an interpreter, a note-taker and extra time on his tests. He also is part of the BUILD program. Martin said one of the things that he thinks UIndy can improve on when accommodating hearing impaired students is the addition of an American Sign Language course.

“The first question I asked UIndy when I got here was if they had an ASL class, which is American Sign Language,” Martin said. “And the answer was no. I was so devastated when I heard that, because I love ASL, even though I don’t speak it fluently. I can read it better than anybody else, but I cannot sign as well as my interpreter. And I’m working on it, but I don’t have anyone to sign with in my daily life, so it’s hard. It’s hard to continue doing something when no one else knows what you’re doing.”

Martin said that something he wants the campus community to understand better about people who are hearing impaired is that they do not always know sign language.

“Most people with cochlear implants [and/or] hearing aids, [they] all don’t know sign language,” Martin said. “That is the biggest thing about us.  Most people think that we all know sign language because we’re hard of hearing or we’re deaf. Some of us do, [but] not all of us. It depends on the type of community that we grew up in. I’m very blessed to know sign language.”


Madison Hays

Photo by Madison Hays

Senior mathematics major Tyler Dunn said he does not quite remember when he first developed autism, but that it does not affect him academically whatsoever. He said he plans to become an actuary, and that his autism actually benefits him in math because of the different way that he thinks.

Dunn said that he is in a high-level math course, has a high GPA and has placed on high honor roll. The major thing that he struggles with is knowing how to act in certain social situations.

“Sometimes when I’m in public, I might speak too loud or do something that will embarrass me,” Dunn said. “It’s hard for me to tell when someone is giving me a cue or tell me something with their body language. Simply put, most of my difficulties happen in social situations.”

Dunn is part of the BUILD program and has a system of tutors that help him and keep him on track and organized. He said that the faculty is very supportive of him and that he always has faculty members to talk to when things go wrong. Outside of the UIndy community, Dunn said, his parents help and encourage him to work through his autism.

“They [my parents] always help me,” Dunn said. “They point out things I’m doing wrong, when I’m doing something socially unacceptable.  Like maybe if I  don’t look proper or I forgot to shave properly, or if I’m being too loud, they can inform me that I’m doing something wrong.”

Although Dunn said he does not have very many friends, he does not mind. He said he does not care much about going to social events, and that should not be something people see as having a “sad existence.” Dunn said that it is a part of who he is, and sometimes people don’t understand that. Even his father had trouble understanding it at one point.

“My dad used to look at me playing alone and feel sad about it and unhappy. But as I grew up, he came to understand something, that I’m okay not having that many friends and being on my own. He was projecting his values onto me. It’s a mistake that I feel people shouldn’t make­that if someone is okay with being alone, they shouldn’t want to make more friends.”

When looking at his autism, Dunn said that he sees his disability in a different light than most.

“Autism may be a disability, but it can also be a benefit,” he said. “It’s just part of how I think about things, how I see the world. Autism is like a different perspective to me. You can overlook some things, not understand some things, but in other areas you can understand and figure things out.”


Photo by Madison Hays

Photo by Madison Hays

Junior international business major Leekshika Pinnamneni was born in India about two months early and had to be put in an incubator to increase her chances of survival. She said there was an oxygen issue in the incubator,  which can cause damage to body parts such as the brain, ear canals and eyes. For Pinnamneni, it was her eyes and some parts of her stomach that were affected. She said her stomach eventually developed, but the lack of oxygen caused her to become fully blind.

After moving to the United States when she was younger, for surgeries and other reasons, she found herself at UIndy. A couple of the accommodations she has received are screen readers and PDF versions of textbooks for her screen reader to read aloud. She also has BUILD tutors to read her exams out loud to her and to interpret graphs. She said much of the help she receives at UIndy has been volunteer help, because the school does not have as much assistive technology as larger schools do.

“Every little bit helps,” Pinnamneni said. “And it doesn’t have to be some specialist doing it, it can just be a kind person who is  willing to take a few minutes out of their day…. Kindness helps, I think, and I think that’s the case for anybody. For anybody with any disability, not only blindness—and I’m not ashamed to say this—I think there is more loneliness involved in the lifestyle. And I’m still not ashamed to say that. I think that’s just a fact of life. Just saying hello or just letting those people know that you can be there and be supportive, that is so helpful. Have a conversation, even if it’s a couple of minutes.”

Pinnamneni said that one of her biggest struggles with being blind isn’t trying to get around­—she had mobility lessons for that. The hardest thing for her is socializing. She said that it is hard when she is talking to someone and she does not know if they have walked away or not. She said it is also difficult to socialize sometimes without being able to see someone’s nonverbal cues.

One thing that Pinnamneni suggests that UIndy do to better to help students with disabilities is to have more opportunities to meet people on campus. She said that at one point, UIndy was a part of the Best Buddies program, which has chapters all over the world. Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization with the goal of building friendships among students with disabilities.  It pairs disabled students with their non-disabled peers.

“What’s the beauty of it is that the organization does sponsored events, but the most important thing is to go on outings with that buddy or just to spend time at a given location … to get that kind of relationship opportunity,”  Pinnamneni said. “Because I think there’s this norm, this societal norm, where if somebody appears a little bit different, there is fear in people. And I totally get it, but I think socially we need to remove that fear from people, and I think it starts in communities like college campuses.”

Pinnamneni said that one thing she wants people to understand is that a student’s condition does not define them.

“I think what I want people to understand is yes, it is obvious that I have a condition, but it’s not the biggest deal in the world. It really isn’t a huge deal,” Pinnamneni said.  “I know that it’s difficult to do but when you meet somebody with any condition, not just my condition, I think it’s so important to see people with any unique challenge—you see that they are a person too. Because we’re human beings first, who [just] happen to have that condition. I think that will just open your eyes. We are not the conditions…. Acknowledge our personhood first, and then you can learn more. And I think that applies to anybody. I think the interesting thing about blindness is that you don’t see the other stuff. You meet a person, and you don’t know what color their skin is. You find that stuff out later. You don’t know about their background. You don’t know their religion, their sexual preference, their facial features. You can explore that later, but you see them as a person first. I think that’s really the beauty in blindness.”

Information from Graphic by Zoë Berg

Information from Graphic by Zoë Berg

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