A Student Government Association (SGA) senator wants to help disabled students on campus.
Emily Eckerd, who also goes by Millie, originally did not think she would have been a good fit for the organization.
"I actually didn't even know anything about student government,” Eckerd said. “I had seen a couple of emails about student government that was sent campus-wide asking for students to get involved, and I pretty much just brushed them aside.
"Like most students, I had figured I'm a transfer student; it wouldn't apply to me. They wouldn't want my opinion, not that they wouldn't want my opinion, but that my opinion wouldn't be valid or reliable because I'm new here.
“But, Alex [Fefolt] had approached me. We were at an activity one evening when he said, 'Hey, I really think you would be a really good fit for a senator position for disability services. Why don't you come out to a few meetings, see what it's about. I'll talk to you more about it, and you can get a feel.'”
The rest is history.
“[SGA] is a way to help students out,” Eckerd said. “I can speak from my perspective. Even if it's not from this school but my past school, as I get to know more disabled students and get to know the needs here more, I can bring it to student government.”
Eckerd is a disabled student herself. She gets around campus with the assistance of her wheelchair, has a limit on the type of food and liquids she can drink and will require a pacemaker later in her life. She even has to remember to breathe.
That has not stopped her from trying to enact change on campus.
As a disabled student, Eckerd said she notices things that an able-bodied student would not. Buses without accommodations for wheelchairs, broken disability buttons from overuse, the number of hills the campus has. What may be an inconvenience by IUP students can be dangerous for students with limited mobility.
“It’s more than just ‘is there a handicap button outside the door;’ it’s more than zooming in so people in the back can see. It’s the little things,” Eckerd said. “If you have students who have autism, what are ways to include them on campus that don’t make them feel overwhelmed? For students who are hard of hearing, what are the learning environments like? What are the dining halls, library and other facilities doing to make sure that the student isn’t embarrassed when they ask to repeat something?”
Those little things Eckerd mentioned also include accessible stalls big enough for a wheelchair, getting students with hidden disabilities to ask for help and sweeping up leaves off sidewalks and walkways.
Disability is not limited to physical ailments. Conditions like dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism and other mental disorders are not visible. Students with these "hidden" disorders, as well as the physical, can receive assistance and aid from IUP's Disability Assistance and Advising, otherwise known as D2A2.
This service helps students with disabilities receive the aid or advising they need around campus. D2A2 also works to help students prepare for after college. Eckerd stresses that students need to learn what to do for themselves after they leave IUP.
"When a student goes to the workplace, they need to be able to accommodate themselves,” she said. “There isn't always going to be Sally from next door being able to push your wheelchair for you on your way to work."
D2A2's work with all the students with disabilities allows for a sense of security while on campus. Students, in most cases, do not need to pay for any extra assistance they receive through disability services. However, with close to 900 disabled students on campus, reduced funding and only two staff members to speak with all those students, challenges are sure to mount.
Eckerd said that D2A2 will be working with President Michael Driscoll and other faculty members on a simulation project. What this project entails is placing upper leadership members of IUP and others from the perspective of a student with disabilities. These can range from being in a wheelchair, being vision impairment, being on crutches, having food allergies or having learning disabilities to show the challenges these students face every day.
The simulation will then task the participants with completing objectives without the aid of D2A2 services. One objective Eckerd mentioned was getting food in fewer than 30 minutes while having a limited diet. The leadership members will then convene with disability services to discuss what was difficult for each of them to complete the task.
"We don't want to take an ableist or pity approach,” Eckerd said. “We want to take that feedback and [the leadership members’] experiences and put it toward something more constructive. And they can see the services D2A2 can provide.
“Then for the second part of the simulation, they will still maintain those disabilities, but they will go through those days with the accommodations that D2A2 can provide. That way, they can see the importance of D2A2 and hopefully put a little more funding, more manpower or more time, something to keep that office running…It could help potential or incoming students say, 'Wow, IUP took the time to understand what it's like to walk in my shoes.'"
Another goal of the simulation project, in conjunction with the fight against hate at IUP, is educating people about differences in others. To show that people come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds. Eckerd said Driscoll and the rest of IUP are making the necessary steps toward real understanding.
“[IUP] is saying this was what was in the past, and that was wrong, but what we can do to change that?” Eckerd said.
After past incidents in previous years on IUP's campus, people like Eckerd, regardless of disabilities, sex, gender or ethnicity, are making the strides to rectify the culture, not only around IUP but beyond.
“All it takes is one person to make that change,” she said. “And then it will build and build and build. I think that IUP has that opportunity right now to make those changes that they need of any form of diversity on this campus…Now is the time, we just need to take the right steps and move forward.”