University Organizations Host Abilites Panel

Molly Mook Staff Writer

On Monday, September 30, the Abilities Panel provided students with an opportunity to hear from a diverse set of perspectives about the topic of varying ability levels. Presented by Special Olympics, LEVEL, Villanova Buddies, VUnited and Mental Health Advocacy & Awareness Club, the panel consisted of two professors, three Villanova students and a Special Olympics athlete.

Andrew Wykowski, president of LEVEL, introduced the event by saying he was excited for it to “spread awareness about different ability levels of our student body and what we can do to make this campus a safe place for everyone.”

Dr. Suzanne Smeltzer has been a professor in the College of Nursing at Villanova for eighteen years and has done research on “the lack of disability related content in most medical, nursing, and other curricula of health care professionals” for about five years.

When asked why healthcare has not made huge strides in addressing healthcare inequities affecting people with disabilities, she largely focused on peoples’ lack of knowledge or their belief that the cause is not important. “In the world, there are one billion people living with one or more disabilities. In this country, it’s sixty million people. That translates into one in every four or five individuals. Those numbers make the population of people with disabilities the largest minority group in the country. To me, that makes it important. If that’s not important, than I don’t know what is,” Smeltzer said.

Almost everyone is touched by disability in some way or another. Dr. Smeltzer said she tells healthcare providers, “It’s going to affect you, it’s going to affect your friends, it’s going to affect your family, and you, and I and all of us need to be better prepared to care for people with disabilities.”

Senior Colleen Fitzpatrick and sophomore Kate Kossoy were on the panel to talk about and advocate for invisible disabilities. Fitzpatrick has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and, Kossoy is president of the Mental Health Advocacy and Awareness Club and has dealt with anxiety and panic attacks herself.

Another senior talked about what he needs due to his cystic fibrosis and weakened immune system, such as a single dorm all four years; he cannot study in a heavily populated area like the library and he cannot be around other people with CF. “It’s made it hard to thrive at times” and “I feel like I’m missing out a little bit,” he commented.

However, his cystic fibrosis has helped him learn to self-advocate. He said, “The big takeaway that I’ve been learning from college and having an illness is that you have to understand yourself. It really is about accepting it and once you accept it, you can open up and talk about it.”

“It’s not about what you’re limited to, it’s about how you can use the abilities you do have to live a worthwhile life,” he said.

Fitzpatrick also discussed the significance of talking, asking for what you need and being determined. “Whatever you come across in life, you have to learn to overcome it and make it work,” she said. “I need accomodations, so I talk to my professors. I work with them and they work with me.”

She stressed that it is vital to “not be afraid to talk about it and go out of your way to have those hard conversations.”

Kossoy, who is the president of the MHAA Club, told the audience that in order to have better, honest, open conversations about mental health at Villanova, “The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that people are suffering from mental health issues, particularly college students, since they are more at risk.”

She told the audience that it is necessary to genuinely ask one another how we are doing. “Most of the time, people are waiting for that question to be asked. They want to talk about mental health and the mental health problems they are experiencing, but they are terrified to start the conversation about it,” Kossoy said.

Dr. Christa Bialka, an associate professor of special education and in the Department of Education and Counseling, shared her perspective, which comes from the education side.

Dr. Bialka informed the audience that a way to become more comfortable talking about disabilities “is starting in the classroom.” The best way is to learn to have those conversations as kids. “Don’t be afraid to say the wrong thing, because saying the wrong thing is better than not saying anything,” Bialka said. 

In addition to learning in the classroom, she said to “Look at the experts, and the experts are people with disabilities.” People need to listen to them and hear their thoughts and experiences in order to better understand.

Trevor Ciampoli, a Montgomery County Special Olympics athlete and athlete representative, talked about the significance of Special Olympics and Villanova Fall Festival in his life. He said that the students and committee members “really care about what the athletes think and work hard to give us a competition experience we will never forget.”