New Group Aims to Empower Obies With Disabilities

Thursday, November 15, 2012

by By Erich Burnett

Meet your mentors: Naomi Pomerantz, Lily Zimmerman, Peter Dutko, and Catherine Wright (from left). Not pictured: Carson Reid.

For as long as she could remember, Lily Zimmerman had been well aware of the ways her disabilities affected each day of her life. A high achiever at an academically rigorous high school in Brooklyn, New York, she knew what it took to stay afloat amid what seemed like an ever-cresting river of exams and research papers.

And so she assumed life at Oberlin would be similarly manageable.

“It was a month into my freshman year that I realized the methods I learned in high school to manage my time were completely incompatible with college,” says the junior art major, who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dysgraphia, a condition that affects the ability to write legibly and coherently. Like other students overwhelmed by their coursework, Zimmerman saw the social opportunities blossoming all around her, but she had no idea how to find time for them.

“When you’re struggling academically, it can spiral out of control and make you worry about the general direction you’re going in life,” she says. But after a fall semester filled with panic and doubt, Zimmerman learned that she had actually done very well in her first classes. And so a feeling of empowerment gradually washed over her. “Part of it was a matter of me realizing that I was worrying way more than I needed to.”

It was a lesson Zimmerman learned relatively early in her college career. Now she hopes to help others come to grips with their campus challenges even sooner.

Oberlin boasts a rich tradition of students helping students in countless ways, from conventional tutoring to peer health advocates, who are charged with raising awareness of subjects ranging from holistic healing to reproductive issues. Now a new form of mentorship has emerged. It’s called Student Accessibility Advocates (SAA), an initiative designed to offer peer support to students with disabilities from more experienced Obies who have faced the same challenges. Zimmerman is one of five such mentors who make up the inaugural team; she is joined by seniors Catherine Wright, Naomi Pomerantz, and Peter Dutko, and junior Carson Reid.

“One of the things that’s hard for students with disabilities is that they feel they don’t have a community,” says Jane Boomer, director of Oberlin’s Office of Disability Services, which sponsors the program. “Building up this kind of community is what we want to do.”

Eliminating Despair
According to data voluntarily supplied to the college, there are some 250 students with disabilities on campus—a figure that represents nearly 10 percent of Oberlin’s overall population. Most of them live with so-called “invisible disabilities,” which can include anything from impaired vision to dyslexia to ADHD. Those disabilities often translate to countless hours of study in order to keep up with the pace of the classroom, accompanied by feelings that even their best efforts aren’t enough. Couple that with the tendency to tune out the many ways to unwind, and the result can be a slow descent into helplessness.

“Nationwide, students with learning disabilities have a greater risk of depression and dropping out of college,” says Anne Lamppa, associate director of the Office of Disability Services and administrator of the SAA program.

“But as you look across college campuses, there aren’t a lot of peer mentors for disability programs.”
And the challenge becomes even greater for students at high-achieving schools such as Oberlin.

Peter Dutko is a politics major with dyslexia who, like Zimmerman, hails from Brooklyn. He remembers how his success in high school quickly gave way to self-doubt once he became immersed in a campus saturated with smart students.

“At an institution where your main purpose is learning, when you fall short of academic expectations—whether they’re your expectations or a professor’s—far too often it becomes a referendum on your character,” says Dutko. “And it’s hard to break out of that.”

Enter the Student Accessibility Advocates.

“A lot of what I’d like to be able to do is provide underclassmen with the kind of information I wish I would’ve had—from advice on professors and classes, to more general advice on how to make the most of your college experience—and how to know how not to do too much,” Dutko says. “Hearing that from adults is important. But hearing it from another student can be really powerful.”

Funded by a gift from the family of a former Oberlin student, SAA began to take shape last spring, when leaders in the Office of Disability Services invited a select number of students with disabilities—including Zimmerman and Dutko—to offer guidance to those in need.

“They’re students who have navigated Oberlin’s campus both academically and personally,” says Lamppa. “We wanted a group with a broad range of disabilities so that they can be helpful to a broad range of students.” In the future, she hopes to institute an application process, allowing interested mentors to step up on their own.

In its first year, SAA’s mission is simply to get the word out that help is now readily available—whether it’s help from a mentor or a member of the staff. In the works are plans for possible movie nights that highlight disabilities—The King's Speech is one option on the table—and workshops designed to help faculty better understand the perspective of students with disabilities. Talks are also under way to improve signage on campus for the benefit of those with disabilities.

A Helping Hand for All
SAA is the latest of many ways the Office of Disability Services offers an outlet to students who want to help their peers. Other initiatives include student note-takers, who assist those who have difficulty keeping up with the pace of classroom discussions; use of voice-recognition software for those with writing problems; and a text-conversion program, used to transfer textbooks to electronic form, allowing them to be read aloud by a computer, with enhanced features to aid learning.

In addition to SAA’s mentors, the program has resulted in a new means of support for overburdened students of all kinds. That means not only those with recognized disabilities, but anyone who juggles particularly intensive academic and extracurricular schedules. As Lamppa says, the community of students with disabilities is surely larger than the number of those who have knocked on her door.

“I'm available to meet with students who have a disability or are wondering if they might have one,” says Lamppa, whose office can be found on the second floor of the main library. “There are often situations where a student may be struggling academically and they are not sure what is going wrong.  I'm a good place to start.”

Not surprisingly, pleas for assistance started to roll in just prior to fall break; traditionally, it’s around midterm time that new students first recognize the need for help.

“I remember the fear and the panic that I experienced in my freshman year, and I know there are plenty of kids who are facing that right now,” says Zimmerman. “But by sharing my insight on proper perspective and maintaining confidence in the face of adversity, I feel I can help them with that.”