Counselor combats labels, assists disabled students

Kamariea Forcier

University students with disabilities have many resources available to them — from special speech access programs that help visually impaired and blind students to get on the World Wide Web to counseling services for people with disabilities such as major depression.
But one thing that has constantly proved a difficulty is the “tragic-but- brave” mentality that people have toward students with disabilities, said Kathy McGillivray, an assistant education specialist for disability services.
And McGillivray knows what she’s talking about.
Blind since birth, McGillivray said she dislikes the condescending air people get when they discuss how well someone with a disability has adjusted to society.
“You want to be able to talk about it, but you risk that tragic-but- brave mentality,” she said. “A lot of people think for someone with a disability, it must be a tragedy, but they’re really brave.
“It’s kind of like saying, ‘hey, for a woman you’re doing great. Now if you were a man, you should be doing better,'” she said.
Aside from being condescending, she also said it puts strain on students with disabilities.
“If you keep telling someone they’re inspirational and some day they don’t feel so inspirational, it puts a lot of added pressure on them,” she said.
McGillivray has worked for the University for two years. During that time, she said her disability has helped her relate to the students she helps.
“I think I can relate to some students’ needs better in some instances,” said McGillivray. “It brings in a different perspective. I sometimes know of options that other people might not consider.”
She spoke about one student who came to her office because he wanted more time to turn in homework assignments for a class.
“I told him, ‘if you start getting extra time, you’re just pushing back everything, and you’re going to start to get behind,'” she said.
But McGillivray said having a disability does not make her any more qualified for her job than another person.
“Disability is not at issue with my job. It’s more about people skills and problem-solving abilities,” she said.
“I thought having a disability gave me a unique perspective,” she said. “But if you asked me six years ago if I would be doing this, I would have said I wasn’t really interested at that point.”
McGillivray’s job includes helping students with disabilities to get reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. Those are “any adjustment to give them a level playing field,” she said.
For example, a student with a visual impairment might be given an exam in larger print, or a student with a brain injury could be given more time to take tests.
But aside from those duties, McGillivray also does disability training workshops with other departments.
“I think people are having an overall positive approach” to this type of training, she said. “I think more and more departments are wanting information on disabilities and services.”
“Part of the way we work here is to help change views on disabilities,” said McGillivray. “A disability is part of the diversity of human experience,” she said.
As for talking to people about their disabilities, she said it’s usually OK to ask questions.
“I think people with disabilities want others to acknowledge that they have a disability,” she said. “But I also think they want people to see them on a personal level.”
“It’s better for people to ask questions,” she said. “You just need to ask them in context of appropriate boundaries.”
One thing McGillivray spoke about as a current issue facing students with disabilities is technology.
“Netscape is not very user-friendly for someone who is blind,” she said.
McGillivray searches the World Wide Web with a speech access program designed for her Macintosh. The computer-synthesized voice reads the text at a rapid pace that McGillivray said one gets used to.
The University offers training courses using speech access programs, she said. Students interested in learning more about those programs should contact her office.
McGillivray said she enjoys her work at the University and likes the setting for its freedom of expression and exchange of ideas. But no matter how much she appreciates these ideals, she said the best part of her job is helping students.
“I think empowering students to achieve their goals — to me that’s what it’s really all about.”