Robyn Clarke and Meliora Hatcher say the University of Florida’s Disability Resource Center has not only helped them succeed at UF, but to thrive.
They are among more than 6,000 students supported by the center, which will lead UF’s celebration in October of Disability Employment Awareness Month and Disability Pride Month – which traditionally takes place in July but is being recognized now since students are back on campus.
The Disability Resource Center (DRC) is partnering with other campus areas to host a Disability Employment Awareness Month event Oct. 21 at Lake Wauburg. The event will showcase accessibility at the lake and unite members of the community.
“Something the DRC has really helped me realize is I can use the things that are hard for me to then help other people and share my story,” said Clarke, who has cerebral palsy.
Disability Employment Awareness Month is dedicated to recognizing the contributions made by employees who have disabilities. It is an opportunity to promote the visibility of and empowerment of people in the disabled community; Disability Pride Month celebrates the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990.
At UF, the DRC, located in Reid Hall, is the primary resource on campus for students with disabilities. The center currently supports 6,100 students with visible and less apparent disabilities navigate college by ensuring campus, classes and activities are accessible and inclusive, depending on individual needs. The DRC also provides presentations and trainings for those who want to learn more about disabilities.
Clarke, a native of Georgia and a graduate assistant at the DRC, completed her undergraduate degree in sports journalism in August and says she would eventually love to work for the DRC or as a learning specialist for athletes with disabilities.
“I really, really feel like that’s my purpose now because I got to do so many wonderful things in sports. I got to work with U.S. figure skating and I got to work with Florida football and I loved all of it,” Clarke said. “I got some really great experience, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else that I was supposed to be doing.”
For Clarke, that ‘something else’ was disability advocacy and helping other college students who have faced similar obstacles. She says she discovered her path as a second-year undergraduate student when she joined Disability Ambassadors, a DRC student group made up of students with and without disabilities that emphasizes disability education, outreach and diversity.
There are also two other organizations found within the DRC: Delta Alpha Pi and Social Gators. Delta Alpha Pi is an international honor society for students with disabilities and Social Gators is a group for students on the autism spectrum.
At the DRC, students are assigned an accessibility specialist who helps them receive the accommodations they need on campus. Academic accommodations help students receive an equitable learning environment without altering course requirements, creating an unfair advantage or modifying curriculum. For instance, students may receive extended time or alternative testing locations for exams or quizzes, additional restroom breaks during classes, alternate format course materials and a variety of other accommodations.
For a student to receive an academic accommodation, they must obtain an accommodation letter each semester from their accessibility specialist. The letter is then sent or delivered in person to the student’s instructors.
“Our connection with the student is key,” said Jenna Gonzalez, DRC director. “To make them feel welcomed when they come here to the DRC, so they get the support they need to get the help they need for their disability.”
The DRC can also provide housing accommodations and can approve emotional support animals for campus residence halls based on medical documentation. Students can complete paperwork through the DRC and then the housing office can arrange placements around those needs. There are various housing accommodations that can be provided including adding bars to walls and adjusting the heights of beds and chairs.
At UF, Cypress Hall is a universally designed residence space. Cypress is one of two universally designed residence halls in the nation that includes a lift system that physically transports students with mobility challenges across their rooms without human assistance, providing autonomy and independence.
Cypress includes 19 fully outfitted universally designed ADA rooms on the first floor that all have adjustable sinks, zero-entry showers, moving toilets, a bidet and a remote accessible door, doorbell, blinds and lights. Outside of bedrooms, Cypress includes long metal push bars referred to by students as ‘bang bars’ that help students open doors and select elevator floors. Bang bars do not require the force it takes to push open a door or to press a typical button. Common areas also include lower height vending machines and mailboxes to help cater to a variety of needs.
Clarke says living at Cypress has helped shape her college experience.
“I live in Cypress Hall and that has been the biggest blessing in terms of accessibility because trying to find an accessible apartment is like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” she said. “But also, just the community of it. Before I moved to UF, I didn’t know anyone who had a similar disability to mine and now I have a whole floor of others who just get it and that’s really awesome.”
Hatcher, of Jacksonville, is a third-year education science major at UF who is blind. Hatcher does not live in Cypress but has also found community and support through the DRC.
“To me, disability pride can be a lot of things. It’s being okay with being proud of my differences and accepting people no matter their disability,” she said. “For society embracing the different talents and different perspectives that disability has to offer. It’s overcoming challenges and overcoming struggles, coming out as a better person on the other end and not better from other people but better than we were before.”