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SU offers services, support for cerebral palsy

When it comes to being a boyfriend, Connor Boyle hasn’t let down his girlfriend, Ashley Wisniewski. He has supported her continuously, even when it meant going through tedious exams with her until she felt comfortable with the material. He’s been nothing but positive.

Boyle has never let the fact that he has cerebral palsy get in their way.

“We’ve literally gone through a Princeton Review practice test,” said Wisniewski, a senior psychology major. “And if I didn’t understand something, he’d explain it to me.”

Boyle is a State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry chemistry major who graduated last year. He has a minor case of cerebral palsy that’s limited to restricting control of movement in part of his legs.

That didn’t stop him from running cross-country in high school or becoming involved with the Alpha Phi Omega community service fraternity at Syracuse University, and he’s now studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Since entering college, Boyle has come to accept cerebral palsy as a part of his identity and doesn’t need any physical assistance in his daily life.

“I realized some time in high school that most nice people shouldn’t really care,” Boyle said. “And, that I should ignore what anyone with a negative attitude thought about it.”

Cerebral palsy is a disability referring to brain damage that impairs motor functions, communication and sometimes intelligence, which affects about one in every 400 people.

A few months ago at SU, a citizen in a wheelchair was paying a visit to the campus. But during her visit, she was immediately struck by a thought: The entrances to several of the buildings weren’t accessible to her. She was referring to Huntington Hall and Hoople Hall, which were out of her reach.

Diane Wiener, director of the Disability Cultural Center, heard her and immediately made several requests to the university. SU services wasted no time and quickly began to address their buildings’ accessibility, and even began looking into other buildings that had similar issues.

“They’re creating a playing field in which everyone has equal access,” Wiener said.

This instance underscores how SU has helped lead a movement in making education more inclusive to those with disabilities, including cerebral palsy.

The groups that are currently at SU are the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center on Inclusive Higher Education, the Stop Bias campaign, the Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee student group, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Office of Disability Services and the Disability Cultural Center. SU is the first university to create so many new organizations devoted to disability inclusion, more than any other in the country.

Wiener said their organization, the Disability Cultural Center, is the first of its kind, and its aim is to create an accepting environment rather than one where people with disabilities feel they need to be fixed.

“Disability is not something over which we have to triumph,” Wiener said.

This movement for greater acceptance and awareness of cerebral palsy began a few decades ago in Australia, with a woman named Anne McDonald.

When McDonald was 3 and her parents became aware of her disability, they placed her in an Australian institution where she was neglected for 14 years.

It was through the help of a counselor, Rosemary Crossley, that McDonald was finally able to escape in 1978. Even after she had left, she faced daily discrimination and had to stand trial to manage her own finances.

While McDonald’s cerebral palsy hadn’t affected her intellect, most people thought she was incompetent because of her difficulties communicating. This negative stigma from the public had been what put her in the institution when she was a child.

Christine Ashby, the director of the Institute on Communication and Inclusion and assistant professor in the Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program, knew Crossley and McDonald from their occasional visits to the U.S. and said this was common in the past.

“Years ago, that was a huge battle that folks with cerebral palsy faced,” Ashby said. “Getting people to realize that ‘just because my body doesn’t move quite the way I want it to, I still have lots of thoughts and ideas.’”

This treatment is what spurred McDonald to become a major advocate of changing this public perception of cerebral palsy and all disabilities. Her success led to her being invited to disability conferences worldwide, and she was awarded the personal achievement award in the 2008 National Disability Awards.

McDonald died in 2010 and a statue of her was built in her home of Victoria, Australia, in honor of how she had helped change the public view of mental disability.

While much progress has been made for those with cerebral palsy, there’s still a lot left to do. More awareness of the condition and all disabilities in the public eye are needed to create a truly accepting environment, even at SU.

“College campuses often focus on diversity in terms of race, class, gender or sexual orientation,” Ashby said. “And don’t account for disability.”

SU still leads the growing movement among universities in the U.S. and will continue to in the future. As Anne McDonald worked for more awareness in the whole world many years ago, SU is doing the same for the world of higher education.

Said Wiener: “We don’t just want to be good enough. We want to be better.”

 

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