Beckwith’s bridges

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Online Poster

By Joe Parrino

As Rich Abrahamson took the stage in his blue cap and gown, his 450 fellow West Aurora High School graduates rose to their feet. Thousands of guests followed their lead. Soon screams and clapping broke out all over the gymnasium.

The cheering continued as Abrahamson took his diploma from West Aurora’s principal. Even after he left the platform, the crowd kept it up. It was the longest standing ovation of the entire 2001 commencement.

“I couldn’t stand that,” Abrahamson said. “I don’t think I deserved it.”

Abrahamson could not savor the applause because he suspected much of it was out of pity.

Abrahamson has cerebral palsy, a disability shared by over 750,000 Americans, according to the United Cerebral Palsy Association. It impairs his mobility enough to require the use of a walker when getting around. The condition also triggers a head-and-shoulders sway that has earned him the nickname ‘Stevie Wonder.’

Nicknames do not bother Abrahamson, now a senior history major at the University. Even his mom calls her red-haired, blue-eyed son ‘Stevie.’ But pity and low expectations get under his skin. Able-bodied peers see his walker or his bobbing head and just assume he is incapable of a meaningful relationship, Abrahamson said.

Getting past the stigma has never been easy for Abrahamson – even on a campus of 40,000 peers. It takes able-bodied students who are with him long enough to see his capacity for friendship, Abrahamson said. And it takes Abrahamson’s courage to make his inner qualities more visible.

Joseph Dephillips, a program specialist for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Washington D.C., said that relationships between able-bodied and disabled people have a tendency to be superficial.

“There are still stigmas that hinder disabled people in relationships with the able-bodied,” said Dephillips, who is legally blind.

The stigmas are expressed more subtly now than in the days when disabled kids were openly mocked, he said. Now able-bodied persons are polite and over-compliment a disabled person. Dephillips sees this flattery as disingenuous and therefore just a kinder, gentler form of the same, old stigma.

“You are treated as a nice guy but not really as a part of the mix,” Dephillips said

Dephillips also pointed to the decisive role school experiences play in overturning stigmas and integrating the lives of able-bodied and disabled peers.

“It’s a time people get to know each other for their ability rather than their disability,” Dephillips said.

The Association of Higher Education and Disability, a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts, estimates that 1.3 million disabled Americans are presently enrolled at a college or a university in this country. The University’s Disability Resources and Educational Services reported that approximately 740 students use their services.

Abrahamson spun his walker behind him and perched himself precariously on the top cross bar. His makeshift stool was set up just outside of Adam Reid’s dorm room where a handful of Beckwith residents gathered to unwind after Thursday morning classes. The conversation drifted from homework to girls to the online shoot ’em up games being played on Reid’s computer.

Beckwith Hall provided Abrahamson with his first dorm experience. The residence hall integrates 19 disabled students together with seven able-bodied students. The able-bodied students earn their room and board by working as personal assistants to the disabled students. A personal assistant helps out with activities of daily living such as getting out of bed, dressing, shaving, etc. Extensive PA service is the reason so many University students with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and quadriplegia choose Beckwith over other housing options.

Even though Abrahamson’s cerebral palsy is not severe enough to require a PA’s help, he said the presence of able-bodied students at Beckwith was critical.

“When it’s only us disabled, we begin to talk about the able-bodied as if they are separate from us,” Abrahamson said. “But we’re in this thing together.”

Abrahamson’s belief in the shared world of able-bodied and disabled people has grown up with him since his childhood in Aurora, Ill. He can still hear the words of his mother.

“‘Rich, I don’t want people to say your life was exceptional for a disabled person,'” he said she said. “‘I want them to say you lived exceptionally- period.'”

Through his 22 years, Abrahamson learned the difference between authentic and pretentious recognition. His back is practically raw from all the pats that able-bodied peers give him, Abrahamson said.

“They all say, ‘you’re great,'” Abrahamson complained. “All you have to be is disabled, and people will pat you on the back.”

The most frustrating part about back patting, Abrahamson said, was that it bogs down the friend-making process.

“I have to work with an able-bodied person for years before I get to see the real ‘them,'” Abrahamson said.

Dorm life forms deeper bonds

Most of his able-bodied friends on campus are Beckwith Hall dormmates. One is Ruben Robles, a community health major who, like Abrahamson, recently completed his first-year at Beckwith. The senior works as a PA to only some of the disabled residents, but everyone in the dorm has a Ruben Robles story to tell. He loves pranks and getting people to loosen up.

At the dorm’s Secret Santa gift exchange last December, Robles gave a female resident a Chip n’ Dales calendar. To make the gift even more unforgettable, Robles pasted photos of male Beckwith residents’ heads over the heads of beefcake models.

But to Abrahamson and other Beckwith residents, Robles is more than the dorm clown. They order supreme pizzas, complain about lame professors, watch movie marathons and embarrass one another in front of female residents. The time they spend together is relatively free of awkward politeness, Abrahamson said.

Neither Abrahamson nor any Beckwith residents pretend their dorm is a happyland where everybody loves everybody. They talk about it in the very ordinary terms of friendship and community.

Yet there is no other campus residence hall like Beckwith Hall in the country according to University sources. Paige Lindahl-Lewis, Beckwith’s assistant director, knew of only one other university with an integrated dorm, St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina. But the live-in PAs at St. Andrew’s tended to be middle-aged – a whole generation apart from the disabled residents.

Beckwith’s PAs however are fellow undergraduate and graduate students. That greatly increases the odds of friendship.

Abrahamson joined the roomful of Beckwith residents during the 2005 NCAA Basketball Championships this April. He plopped down in a fuzzy blue chair in front of the 50-inch Theaterview TV. Gathered around him were the majority of his 25 dormmates all decked out in loud orange. Most of the ample floor space was taken up by powered wheelchairs. Beckwith’s common’s area became a virtual cheering section as the game got underway.

Chants of I-L-L-I-N-I, high-five slaps, airborne popcorn. Each shot was followed by a thunderous roar or a heartbroken groan. Abrahamson’s “Stevie Wonder moves” were busting. Emotion ran so high that one student’s ventilator began to beep.

When the final buzzer sounded at last and the home team was finally beaten, Beckwith’s residents slowly emptied out of the common’s room. It was difficult to hide their dejection. It was also difficult to hide their friendships.