Disability Awareness Week opens minds, promotes service

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Brenna Colby
Students and faculty learn about dealing with emotional disabilities during a “Mindful Meditation” workshop in 2016. (Brenna Colby)

BYU is celebrating Disability Awareness Week Oct. 23-Oct. 27 with events to inform students and faculty members about what living with a disability is like on campus.

The annual weeklong event is coordinated by the University Accessibility Center and Delta Alpha Pi, BYU’s honor society for students with disabilities.

Delta Alpha Pi President Emilee Montini has worked with the University Accessibility Center and her society’s members to coordinate and plan the week’s events.

“It’s a week to bring awareness to the BYU campus about different disabilities that students face,” Montini said. “It’s geared towards every student, not just students that have disabilities.”

Daily events include a student discussion panel, an ADHD informational workshop, a special showing of Finding Dory with accessible features, a stress management and biofeedback workshop and a service project activity.

Disability Awareness Week started at BYU during the 1999-2000 school year. The weeklong celebration was coordinated by Student Leadership until 2014. It has been under the direction of the University Accessibility Center since then.

The University Accessibility Center accommodates students with disabilities so they have equal opportunities at BYU. The center focuses on helping students reach their full potential with access to materials, testing, and support. The Delta Alpha Pi Honor Society is part of those benefits.

BYU’s Delta Alpha Pi chapter was started in 2013. The society currently has 12 members who all play a crucial part in the planning of Disability Awareness Week. The planning process begins in April and continues throughout the summer up until the event in October.

Montini, a member of the society for the last three years, has dyslexia and dyscalculia. Dyslexia is a disorder that affects reading and language-based processing skills while dyscalculia is difficulty in learning or comprehending numbers and math. She understands the difficulty being a student with a disability at BYU.

But the opportunity to share her experience with others is more important to her than the struggles she faces.

“(Having a disability) really is a growing experience that for me is an honor to share with other people,” Montini said. “You’re not only opening opportunities for yourself to become better and to teach others, but you’re allowing other people to become a part of your journey.”

Montini works alongside the society’s faculty adviser Valerie Shewfelt to lead the event planning.

Shewfelt is the University Accessibility Center’s Coordinator of Mentoring and Technology. She has worked with the center for the last two years and admits it has opened her eyes to what life is like with a disability.

“Before working here I thought disabilities were physical that was disability to me,” Shewfelt said. “I had no clue about hidden disabilities, learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, even chronic illness is a disability. We all have struggles, and some are just a little more obvious than others.”

Brenna Colby
Students and faculty attend a “Mindful Meditation” workshop in 2016. (Brenna Colby)

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more life activities of an individual.”

About 2000 BYU students are clients with the University Accessibility Center, according to the center’s director GeriLynn Vorkink. Fifty percent of those students live with emotional disabilities and 30 percent have ADHD.

Vorkink says students who suspect they may have a disability end up coming to the center each year as a result of the Disability Awareness Week program. She believes the awareness week should be important to others beyond BYU students.

“Disability Awareness Week is not just for students,” Vorkink said. “The entire campus community is invited, and we hope attendees will gain a new perspective of the challenges faced by people with disabilities and a greater appreciation for the potential those with disabilities have to lead productive, successful lives.”

Disability Awareness Week begins on Monday, Oct. 23. The week’s first activity will take place at noon in the WSC Terrace, where a discussion panel will be moderated by Delta Alpha Pi vice president Hunter Searle.

The week’s events lead up to a service project activity in partnership with the BYU Experience on Friday, Oct. 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the WSC Terrace. The BYU Experience is a program that invites college-age or older individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities to experience college life for a night.

Montini recommends participation in as many of the week’s activities as possible. The greater the understanding of disabilities is on the BYU campus, the more meaningful it will be to serve those who need it.  

“Disability Awareness Week can bring understanding to yourself,” Montini said. “But it can really help you open up your mind and your thought process about people you will serve or be around in the future.”

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