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Cindy Wetherby

Proving That Disability Education Becoming Part of Daily Life

(ARA) - Cindy Wetherby buzzes around the campus of Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minn., on a motorized cart equipped with oxygen. A lung dysfunction that left Wetherby with 27 percent less lung volume than the average person hasn't prevented her from pursuing a college education and teaching career.

Wetherby is among 43 million Americans with disabilities, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and their presence in every day life is becoming common, accepted and even welcomed. In the last decade, Americans have broadened their horizons regarding the disabled thanks to the 1990 passage of the ADA, disability awareness education and increased inclusion of the disabled in schools and businesses.

"Christopher Reeve has been a great example of what a disabled person can do," Wetherby says. Paralyzed from the neck down in a horse show-jumping accident in 1995, "Superman" Reeve has become an international crusader for spinal cord injury awareness and research. He's also returned to film both as an actor and director, and has become a sought-after speaker.

Wetherby is another example, and she's thrilled to enlighten her own little corner of the world. "I'm an education to those around me," she says. From Northwestern, to her children's schools to her church and neighborhood, Wetherby says, "People are curious when they see me and I want them to approach me. This way they learn about my disability and about me as a person."

She says her outgoing personality helps create an atmosphere of comfort and ease. "I use humor. I'm always laughing and like to see people laugh. Humor breaks down some of the barriers and makes me approachable. I also watch body language, which helps me gauge how to deal with people."

In the 13 years Wetherby has been living with her disability, she's gleaned insights into how to approach and get to know a disabled person. "Be open; don't be afraid to ask questions. Take the time to talk and be sure to listen. Don't be reluctant to ask how to help in case they ever need assistance or emergency help. And please, don't assume or be judgmental about a person or their disability. For example, some assume I was a smoker, but I wasn't. I'm on oxygen because of a lung dysfunction."

Since coming to Northwestern, Wetherby has discovered that her presence in classes, the library and cafeteria educates her fellow students as well as faculty and staff. "I believe God put me here so people could see me, meet me and be aware of those of us with disabilities," she explains. "I'm here to let students know it's okay to get to know me. I'm comfortable with this; they can be, too. A lot of students have never been exposed to a person with a disability, so it's good that I'm here."

Wetherby has learned a lot in the process as well. When she began student teaching at a local middle school, she was a bit uncomfortable dealing with all her equipment and students' reactions. "My supervisor told me to be straight with the kids and explain what happened," she recalls. "They are naturally curious and need to know. After that, we were all just fine."

Wetherby and other disabled students at Northwestern have an advocate in the Disability Office of Support Services (DOSS). Like similar programs in colleges across the country, DOSS offers peer helpers and tutoring, alternative testing conditions, accessibility support, study skills and strategies, room accommodations and parent advocacy among many other services.

Dr. Yvonne Redmond-Brown, DOSS director, says the department's services are for the entire college, not just disabled students. "We encourage fellowship and connectedness of the disabled within the entire campus. We are here to help everyone learn about the everyday struggles and limitations so we all can understand and support each other."

One vehicle Dr. Redmond-Brown has implemented is DOSS Awareness Week held each fall on Northwestern's campus. The week provides opportunities for students, faculty and staff to focus on learning styles and challenges, college transitions and resources. Events include panel discussions, workshops, class sessions and lunchtime chats with guests who have met life's challenges through their disabilities. "It's an opportunity to grow through fellowship," Redmond-Brown says.

Wetherby admits she's had some personal challenges on campus, from sitting idle during lunch while her cart's battery recharges to calling her teenager to bring a replacement oxygen tank to campus. "We all have disabilities, some are visible and some are invisible," she says. "But disabilities are only as challenging as our minds let them be."

Courtesy of ARA Content


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