Disabled students benefit from strong support systems.
By Christian Erevia
At 34 years old, Jackie Velez had just moved out of her mother’s house. She was living with her sister and spent her days reading, watching TV and listening to music.
Velez, who has spina bifida, had become stuck in a negative mentality after years of being discouraged by family members from pursuing her independence.
“For most of my life, I had lived not doing much with it,” Velez said. “I hadn’t fully grasped that this was my chance to finally do something with my life.”
Velez’s sister challenged her one day: “What do you want to do with your life? What’s stopping you?” she asked, forcing Velez to confront her desire to go back to school and embrace her love of learning.
Velez spent a few weeks after their talk researching re-enrollment. She then took the plunge and registered for the spring 2014 semester.
Velez set a goal of completing two classes with good grades her first semester at this college, which soon grew to taking four classes, participating in the student leadership program as well as a job in the writing center as a tutor.
She graduated in spring 2016 with an associate degree in radio, television and broadcasting.
Today, the communications and arts sophomore at the University of the Incarnate Word is an anchor for UIWtv and a DJ for KUIW, UIW’s online radio station.
Spina bifida is a birth defect that damages the spinal cord. Velez says she does not let it hold her back.
“I don’t live with spina bifida. Spina bifida has to live with me,” Velez said.
Velez has spent her life in a wheelchair because of complications from her disability. She has a shunt in her spine to control excess fluid in the brain, which prevents brain damage and even death. Spina bifida has also caused issues with Velez’s kidneys and bladder.
“I’ve been in and out of hospitals more times than I can count,” Velez said. “Surgery, I can’t even count how many times I’ve had surgery.”
These are just a few of the physical challenges Velez encounters daily.
She is not alone. In 2011-12, 11 percent of college undergraduates reported having a disability, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. That number was higher — 16 percent — for undergraduates older than 30, and disabled veterans made up 21 percent of students that academic year.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act curtails discrimination against disabled applicants, preconceived notions can be intimidating for both employers and those seeking employment.
“Employers need to listen to them and figure out what they can do,” disabilities services specialist Delia De Luna said of disabled applicants. “They are just looking for a chance, like anyone else, to be considered.”
Employers should focus on what applicants can do and offer as opposed to what they may not be able to do, De Luna said. Employers should also be sure to differentiate between what is absolutely required of a job and what they can be flexible about.
“If the job requires you to lift 50 pounds and you can’t, that’s a whole different thing” De Luna said.
Applicants, on the other hand, need to put their best attributes first. Disabled individuals can really make themselves stand out by being confident in their abilities, De Luna said.
“Make sure they know what you can do,” De Luna said. “Don’t start by saying, ‘I can’t do this, this or this.’”
Sticking to and growing one’s strengths is key, Velez said.
“Show them what you can do,” Velez said.
Students should promote their strengths for potential employers, Velez said.
“Networking, that’s my strength,” Velez said. “I’ve never been one to shy away from conversation or ask questions about something, and suddenly I have someone’s phone number and they have mine.”
Treating everyone equally and like human beings has widened her list of contacts and connections, Velez said
Students should also not be scared to challenge themselves to grow and improve their abilities, Velez said.
It is also important that students surround themselves with a strong support group of people who don’t put them down or discourage them from trying, Velez said.
“I have two sisters, friends and mentors who are always there for me,” Velez said. “They’re incredible, I can’t even describe how amazing they are.”
A strong source of support can provide disabled students the extra push to pursue resume-building activities. A good support system wants to see the best in them, which is critical when it comes to confidence and ambition, Velez said.
When the self-doubt sets in, Velez said her sister is always there to assure her that she is capable of chasing and accomplishing her dreams.
Students should also be open to saying “yes” to opportunities. Internships are another way disabled students can show potential employers their abilities. Accepting even a part-time job can give students a greater degree of independence.
Soft skills, which are skills that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people, are a big part of networking and very important when job searching, certified adviser Bonnie Clauss said.
Clauss works for this college’s transfer and career services center.
The TRAC center offers mock interviews, résumé writing, workshops and job searches.
The TRAC center does not discriminate or treat any students differently, Clauss said.
Students can receive more information about employment and internships through the career center, which offers one-on-one help.
For more information, call this college’s dSS office at 210-486-0020.