CSUN Center on Disabilities breaking stereotypes and advocating for educational equality

Jacky Guerrero

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Alyssa Mazure is a social work graduate student and plans to work helping youth with Multiple Sclerosis or with LGBTQQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender or Queer and Questioning) youth after finishing her M.A. Photo Credit: Jacky Guerrero / Staff Reporter

Alyssa Mazure is a social work graduate student and plans to work helping youth with Multiple Sclerosis or with LGBTQQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender or Queer and Questioning) youth after finishing her M.A. Photo Credit: Jacky Guerrero / Staff Reporter

A multiple-choice exam begins and students hurry to take out their pencils and scantrons. They all have fifty minutes to complete the exam. Fifty minutes spent in a lecture room with 100 students tapping their pencils, anxiously scribbling, flipping pages, and teachers making last minute announcements, while students concentrate on successfully finishing their test.

Among those hundred students, Jora Amirkhanian sits patiently, trying to concentrate and ignore the movement around him, and the anxiety that he feels inside. He is also simultaneously trying to read what the test question is asking. Five minutes have passed and he has successfully been able to understand the question, now he must read and choose correctly between A, B, C, or D.

Due to the time it takes Jora to read and understand a question, the highest Jora can hope to achieve is fifty percent on his exam despite having a Performance IQ (PIQ) in the 95 percentile.

After six years at Santa Monica Community College (SMCC), Jora was a B average student, but after transferring to UCLA to complete a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Jora dropped from average to failing.

After being tested for a disability, Jora was diagnosed with symptoms of dyslexia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

‘I wasn’t convinced,’ said Jora, recalling his refusal to accept that he had a disability getting the results.

He felt he needed to go to an independent clinic for more credible results.

‘I wanted people who cared,’ said Jora.’

‘I wasn’t educated enough in a sense of what a disability was back then. In school it wasn’t explained properly, we were told we just need to treat you differently than another student, but I didn’t want to be treated different. I wanted to be given the opportunities to perform at the same level,’ said Jora.

Currently 11 percent of students who attend a postsecondary educational institution have a disability, according to a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

‘It wasn’t explained to me properly, it was explained like you have a problem,’ said Jora. ‘I don’t think a disability is a problem, it is a circumstance and there are ways you can work with it.’

In the fall of 2006 Jora returned back to school for his second bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at CSUN, where he also started to work as a peer mentor at the Center on Disabilities (COD).

At CSUN Jora is only one among about 900 students registered with disabilities on campus.

‘We are probably one of the top best schools that serve students with disabilities,’ said Dan Duran, a counselor at the COD. ‘Except that we are unique in the fact that we have students that vary in their particular disability and the type of accommodation that we provide.’

Presently the COD offices located in Bayramian Hall have ten alternative testing rooms with sound proofing, accessible furniture, technological features and alternative formatting which can change traditional text to the Braille system said Jody Johnson, associate director at the COD, who has been working for the center almost 25 years.

Alyssa Mazure, a social work graduate student at CSUN has been going to the COD since she started college as an undergraduate.

At one point Alyssa had to attend rehabilitation at the Center of Achievement for the Physically Disabled/ Brown Center on campus after she suffered an episode due to her Multiple Sclerosis (MS) during the spring of 2007.

Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

‘I had to withdraw because I suffered an episode that left the right side of my face with out feeling, I couldn’t see, couldn’t hold a pen, I couldn’t read,’ said Alyssa. Though she did not let that impede her from joining the ‘Vagina Monologues’ cast in 2002 as a master of ceremony.

‘Do you know how difficult it is to say ‘welcome to the vagina monologues’ when you can’t feel half your face?’ Alyssa said laughing.’

Her brother helped her read and write e-mails during the semester when she was in rehabilitation. Her professors were understanding and allowed her to do her homework via email, said Alyssa.

‘Once during my freshmen year I asked my professor that I needed to record the lectures do to my disability, instead of allowing me that my professor made me stand up in front of my class and made me plead my case to the students and explain why I needed to record the lecture,’ said Alyssa remembering dealing with professors who had presented obstacles to the assistance she needed.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), faculty does not necessarily have the right to know what the student’s exact diagnosis is.

‘Faculty face many responsibilities, when a student with a disability comes to class sometimes expectations are unclear,’ said Johnson. ‘Or sometimes people are afraid of people with disabilities. It is kind of the same prejudice anyone else might experience and disabilities is just one of those.’

In cases like Alyssa’s the COD encourages students to speak to their professors first, if the situation does not improve then the student’s will speak to the faculty member directly and educate them about students with disabilities.

‘All we are trying to do is level out the playing field. People with disabilities have the same right to compete in the academic arena. We don’t want to set anyone apart,’ said Duran.

Other departments that work with the COD are the National Center on Deafness, which was instituted in 1965 when deaf students began being admitted into CSUN.

By 1970 CSUN had started to change the campus architecture, which was one of the main barriers for students with disabilities. A veteran who had a disability, not related to his time in Vietnam, pressured the campus to make CSUN more accessible for students with mobility problems.

In the 1970’s after the Vietnam War, many Veterans were returning back with handicaps, which started a movement among people with disabilities that pushed for legal protection.

By 1973 the Rehabilitation Act had passed making it the first anti-discrimination law protecting people with disabilities, but by then CSUN had been already started accommodating students with disabilities.

‘After graduating from CSUN in 76′ I was unsuccessful at finding a job,’ said Duran. ‘Those times were very discriminatory against people with disabilities.’

In 2009 the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is at 13.2 percent.

Other departments that work in coordination with the COD is the Educational Department that provides special education literacy lab programs that help the K-12 community, the Family Focus Resource and Empowerment Center that provides resources and awareness for parents of possibly disabled students from birth to age 21 and the CHIME Institute that practices new ways to teach children with out just teaching to the mean of the class.

Currently Gail Roberts-Hughes, who also works for the COD, has joined with a group of students to start up the International Delta Alpha Pi Honor Society for students with disabilities to break the negative stereotypes about people with disabilities and to focus on their academic accomplishments.

‘Students should be recognized for their achievements,’ says Jora who is vice president of the honor society. ‘We need to start empowering those students who have done well with the obstacles they have faced.’