LEVEL strives to make a tangible difference on campus

Emma Pettit

On February 11, dozens of students crowded into Davis, donned blindfolds and frantically searched the ground for dodgeballs to lob at their opponents while directions were shouted at them from their teammates. The event, sponsored by LEVEL, was created to raise money and awareness about people with disabilities.

Though LEVEL has only existed on campus since 2011, the organization has made a big name and reputation for itself. Every year the group hosts bi-monthly meetings, movie nights, retreats, speakers and, most notably, Casino Night, all for the purpose of raising awareness and starting discussions about disabilities on campus.     

It’s a tall order. Villanova has around 7,000 undergrad students, some of whom may not have been exposed to many people with disabilities before coming here. But LEVEL embraces the challenge and their efforts pay off. Last year over 1,000 people attended Casino Night, a number that the group hopes to exceed this year on April 20. 

Hindley Williams, the President of LEVEL, is pleased with how the group has done but acknowledges there is still more work to do. Williams said the main goal of LEVEL is to spread the message about the stigma against those with disabilities, take that understanding and “reflect it into society to increase consciousness, cognizance, and primarily, equality.” 

Nick Carney, LEVEL’s Vice President, agrees and said, “What we’re trying to do is create an environment on Villanova’s campus that allows people to flourish and succeed as college students the same way we all hope to.”

The group’s name is well known across campus, with over 400 people on their email list and 40 to 60 people attending every meeting. But Williams and Carney know there are still obstacles to disability awareness that they hope to overcome. 

Williams said the “Villanova-politeness” factor can be a hindrance to talking about disabilities in general. “It’s well intentioned,” Williams said. “It’s people not wanting to offend other people and that, in essence, is a good thing. But it can have detrimental ramifications.” 

Carney also thinks that sometimes people do not feel comfortable approaching those with disabilities and therefore do not try to get to know them. “There’s a gap between the two communities,” Carney said. “So that’s what LEVEL tries to do is bridge that gap.” 

LEVEL attempts to bridge this gap through events like Blind Dodgeball and by bringing in speakers like Eric LeGrand, a former college football player, to present during Disabilities Awareness Week. The group also has awareness-based activities at their meanings to show those without physical disabilities what it might be like to be disabled. 

Though these events are well-attended, there are still misconceptions and prejudices about disabled people that persist at Villanova. LEVEL calls one of these prejudices “misplaced inspiration.” Williams explains that she, as a person with a visible disability, is sometimes approached by strangers who tell her that she’s inspiring while she’s walking around on campus. 

“I’m just trying to get to class,” Williams said with a laugh. “It’s stuff like that which really set people with disabilities apart in our society where we’re just trying to live normal lives.” 

Carney said that if students are not exposed to all different sides of people with disabilities, they can become these symbols of inspiration. But if students get to know them on an individual level, they’ll “see them for what they are, which is people.” 

Aside from perceptions, there are other challenges for disabled people at Villanova. Williams said that she has had great teachers who understand it is their responsibility to provide her with equal learning opportunities. But she admits there are concerns with other students who are always questioning if they’re going to get the accommodations they need. 

Another challenge for disabled students that Williams believes is improving at Villanova is accessibility. According to Williams, the school has become much more accessible in recent years than it has been in the past. The university has added braille labels to classrooms, ramps and elevators around campus to make it more accessible. 

However, Paul Pergolizzi, LEVEL’s Treasurer, pointed out that he is currently taking a class called “Intro to Disabilities Studies” in a classroom that is not wheelchair accessible. Certain buildings around campus, like John Barry, still remain inaccessible for some disabled students. 

Carney addressed this issue and said that while Villanova is very good about switching classrooms if a disabled student requests it, the student is still “thought of after the fact.” Carney thinks this is indicative of a larger issue on campus: disabled students are often considered only after plans have been made. 

“There are students who participate in Orientation but can’t necessarily participate in all the activities that are involved,” Carney said. He also pointed out that Greek functions or off-campus student activities occur at places that are not wheelchair accessible. “You don’t think about those things first. You think about them second.”

Despite these challenges, LEVEL has been able to thrive on campus and create an environment for disabled students and their classmates to come together and have a discussion about disabilities. This community is what Williams, Carney and Pergolizzi are the most proud of. They even joke that they recruit disabled students to Villanova because of their organization:“They (prospective students) see a place there they can thrive,” Carney said. “We’ve built this to a point where people look at us the same way people look at Greek Life or sports or student life.”

From a humble start, LEVEL has become one of the most well known groups on campus. Every year they grow and spread their message that equality for all people, regardless of ability, should be achieved. 

“In the beginning, there was a lot of doubt about whether or not this would work…” Williams said. “The fact that this group is still in existence means that this message matters. And if people think this message matters, then there is a brighter future for Villanova and there’s a brighter future for people with disabilities.”