Where Challenge Meets the Road
by Crystal Stipe
My first day as a student at UM didn’t begin as planned. I got up hours early to make sure I got to class on time—just as I’m sure many other freshmen did that day. I spent an extra half hour in front of the mirror—just as I had on the first day of high school the four previous years. However, the similarities between my first day of school and most everyone else’s ended there. As I attempted to leave my dorm room for the first time in my collegiate career, I realized I was locked in.
When I opened the door—with the tension set like it was—I couldn’t get my wheelchair through before it swung shut again. After attempting this somewhat acrobatic move several times with no success, I placed a frantic call to my mom, who was at work. In turn, she placed what I’m almost positive was an equally frantic call to the front desk of my dorm. Mom called back to assure me that help was on the way and wished me luck—for about the twentieth time in twelve hours. Soon after I hung up the cell phone I had purchased for emergencies such as this, I heard a knock, followed by a key in the door. Pat, the Pantzer Hall secretary, opened the door with a smile and held it while I went through. As I thanked her and sped away, she promised to have maintenance come change the tension on the door.
The door episode was one of the first of what was to become a never-ending list of adjustments, large and small. I have gotten much better at paying attention to the smallest details—from the method of note-taking that works best in my wheelchair, to the best places to park my chair in different classrooms on campus, to making sure I schedule my classes so I can get to each one on time.
I went to high school in the small Montana town of Charlo, where everyone knows everyone else. Many of the people who live there have been super-supportive of me. I have known them my entire life, and the challenges I faced in high school we faced as a group. I had the benefit of knowing that they would always be there to pick me up when I fell, sometimes literally. Probably the most difficult thing about coming to college was not the number of adjustments I had to make; it was the fact that I had to face those adjustments on my own. One thing that I have learned, however, is not to share my experiences with too many people back home. The first weekend I went home after being locked in my room, many people congratulated me for making it out of my dorm room.
My first story assignment as a print journalism major came in my beginning reporting class. The assignment was to cover a speech on campus and it came from Professor Denny McAuliffe, who gave us some helpful tips. The one thing I will never forget him saying is, “Write down everything that’s said.” The reason I’ll never forget it is because the moment he said it I started to panic. “This is why I can’t go into journalism,” I thought to myself. “I take terrible notes.”
I love to write. I always have. When I was little and most of my friends were mastering the skill of jump-rope or learning to throw a perfect spiral, I wrote long stories about cartoon characters, cowboys, or sports stars in notebooks I sincerely hope no longer exist. I imagined myself as an author. As I moved through elementary school, I wanted to become a journalist. However, as I entered high school, reality began to creep up on me.
My cerebral palsy affects my fine motor skills, making the speed at which I write and type slower than that of the average person. That and other mobility-related concerns led me to believe it was impossible for me to go into journalism, so I began my college career as a Spanish major. One year, a class on speechwriting, and a talk with a career counselor later, I changed my major to journalism.
Sitting in that reporting class that day, I had serious doubts about my decision. Somehow, though, I made it through the first few assignments. I experimented with different ways to improve my note-taking, I used a number of different tape recorders, I developed a version of shorthand that only I will ever understand, and I used e-mail whenever possible. It’s nowhere near perfect. In fact, sometimes it’s ugly, but I have learned to combine several different methods and most of the time it works out fine.
After taking a few journalism classes, I realized that working at a newspaper would be very difficult, because, while my note-taking had become adequate, I was not a fast writer or typist, making it difficult to meet deadlines, and since I don’t drive, it is very difficult to get anywhere on short notice. After discussions with a few very helpful professors, I realized I may be better suited for public relations work.
Students with disabilities face many different obstacles, depending, of course, on their disability. One hundred and twenty-nine students with disabilities graduated from UM during the 2004-05 school year. For many of us, that could not have happened without the help of Disability Services for Students.
When Jim Marks became director of DSS in 1988 it was a part-time position. His office consisted of a half-full file drawer, a desk without a computer, and a closet that contained poster paints. He worked with 120 students. These days he works full time and oversees a staff of more than ten people who serve approximately 900 students—seven percent of the University’s student population. DSS is bigger than similar departments at all other Montana colleges combined.
DSS staff members do a number of different things. They rarely act on behalf of students; instead, they encourage students to act on their own behalf and are there to provide support for those who may need their assistance. For instance, they provide test-taking accommodations for students who need them, provided the students make arrangements with their professors before the exam.
DSS also works to ensure all buildings on campus comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This requires the dedication of individuals like Marks and his staff, as well as constructive suggestions from students with disabilities. The hard work of DSS to make the University increasingly accessible to students with disabilities is no doubt largely responsible for the increase in the number of students with disabilities who attend UM.
Marks explains the growth this way: “It’s not rocket science. When you create access people will come.” Marks says the University reacts well to the needs of students with disabilities, adding, “President Dennison has been great about responding to DSS needs.”
Marks noted an example: in August 2005 it became necessary for a lift to be installed in UM’s Music Building to allow a student who uses a wheelchair access to certain parts of that building. By spring, the lift was installed and operational. Marks says that was a very quick response, especially considering the size of the project.
Marks also credits increased access to the students who have requested the changes. “It takes a small group of people with a clear focus and a willingness to see things through,” he says. He adds that while the University has made great strides, it still has a long way to go. “We try hard, but it’s not easy,” he says.
Marks is blind and his use of a computer and Braille e-mail is a joy to watch. It’s also nice to know the person running the show not only is familiar with the difficulties faced by people with disabilities, but is also a role model as a successful professional.
Another group that works hard to increase access for students on campus is the Alliance for Disability and Students at UM. ADSUM is a student group that works to break down barriers of all types for students with disabilities, whether they are physical or people’s attitudes. Jon Pielaet, ADSUM secretary for the 2005-06 school year, says that ADSUM is successful because students don’t give up. “We don’t forget,” he says. “We are very persistent.”
During this last school year, for example, ADSUM worked to stop people from parking bikes in front of ramps and electric doors. The group called the Office of Public Safety approximately sixty times during fall semester. Pielaet says there has been progress made in that area, but it is an ongoing issue for the campus community.
Pielaet says the list of access issues is long and gets longer every day. Physical barriers are the most difficult list to shorten because of the red tape involved. The list includes the lack of curb cuts on Campus Drive and the lack of access to the Forestry, Native American Studies, and Natural Sciences Buildings, and to Elrod Hall.
Pielaet says while there are issues that still need to be addressed, the University does a better job than most places. “We don’t expect miracles,” he says, “We just want small steps.”
The most important thing I learned during my time at UM is that challenges are never completely impossible to surmount. With a little help and a lot of patience almost anything is possible. While I by no means have all the answers and I am still learning to overcome challenges that arise, I graduated from UM in May with a degree in journalism, just like I dreamed when I was in sixth grade.
When I closed the door to my dorm room for the final time last spring, I wasn’t worried about being locked in. I had to reach in and pull it shut—proof that while nobody is ever done facing life’s challenges, at least they change.
this article in Montanan