Beckwith’s bridges: Students with and without disabilities cross a social divide

By Joe Parrino

Through recent decades, Americans with disabilities have joined the able-bodied population in the classroom, the work place and cyberspace in ever increasing numbers. But according to recent studies and experts, a social canyon carved out by ignorance, self-consciousness and fear still divides many peers. At the University of Illinois, one residence hall is bridging this gap. Beckwith Hall has integrated able-bodied students and students with disabilities in a living arrangement that may hold clues to a more connected future.

Keiko Miceli glanced at her clock and realized that she was running late to her 6 p.m. sociology class. It was nothing to worry about. Miceli’s dormmate, Anne Hopkins, was also in the class.

Outside of Beckwith Hall, Miceli stepped up onto the back of her friend’s Permobil powered wheelchair and dug her fingers into the seat rest. Then Hopkins nudged the joystick mounted to her armrest.

Soon the two were speeding down John Street at a brisk seven mph, slowing down only for the occasional bump in the sidewalk.

Miceli said she gets lots of lifts from Hopkins and the 24 other residents at Beckwith Hall, a University residence hall that integrates able-bodied students and students with disabilities. Miceli’s Beckwith friends have borne her through emotional downs and helped her through tough classes.

Many able-bodied students like Miceli who worked and lived at Beckwith Hall have found the same capacity for friendship. Through both work and play, relationships across ability differences have thrived. The social barriers, though still present, get passed like bumps in the sidewalk.

Close companionship wasn’t what Miceli had in mind when she became a personal assistant at Beckwith. At the time, she had never had a close friend with a severe disability. Though not one to look down on others, she confessed to seeing them as physically fragile or lacking in cognitive abilities.

Joseph Dephillips, a program specialist for the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in Washington, D.C., said that close or actual friendship is frustrated by the low expectations able-bodied people have of their peers with disabilities.

“To get their respect you have to be a superstar,” Dephillips said. “They just don’t believe you can do anything of real importance.”

Dephillips, who is legally blind, added that there is a fear factor as well.

“People are really afraid of (the disability),” Dephillips said. Either they are scared to say the wrong thing or of accidentally injuring them, Dephillips explained.

Stephen Hopkins, also a sophomore at the time, was one of the Beckwith residents who hired Miceli for several hours of personal assistance. Hopkins, now a senior in Business, remembered being impressed the very first day with the lifting strength of the petite Miceli.

“She was stronger than my male PAs,” said Hopkins, whose muscular dystrophy requires help lifting in and out of his chair.

After two years of working as a personal assistant, Miceli realized that she had more friends at Beckwith than at her own residence hall. She decided to apply for a live-in personal assistant position and has been at Beckwith ever since.

Her second year working at Beckwith she met Steve’s sister, Anne. They had the same taste in punk rock bands and Za’s pasta. Not only did they find each other compatible but good company as well. In fact, the vast majority of their time together was spent outside personal assistance hours.

Their growing circle included both friends with disabilities and without. Miceli introduced some of her old high school pals and classmates to other Beckwith residents. Steve Hopkins broke the ice with a little humor.

“My friends thought he was hilarious,” Miceli said. “Especially when the joke was about me.”

But a personal assistant’s life is not all fun and games. Those who live at Beckwith are required to schedule in at least 12 work hours per week with residents with disabilities. Students with disabilities hire personal assistants to assist with everyday routines such as getting out of bed, showering, shaving, etc. Live-in personal assistants are required to sign up for a floater shift.

Floaters enable Beckwith to provide round-the-clock care. The pager can beep at any time.

Miceli responded to 17 beeps for assistance, about one every 20 minutes. She picked up fallen papers twice, brought food or drink seven times, changed one leg bag, changed a resident out of his three-piece suit, and turned Anne to make her comfortable enough to sleep.

For all its toil, the floating shift does have an advantage, Miceli said.

“I get comfortable in my own little group,” Miceli said. “But this job keeps me meeting and speaking with all the residents.”

Beckwith residents don’t mistake interaction for close friendship. Personalities still determine that, Miceli said. But without interaction, personality hides within the shell of appearance.

Brutal honesty

Ruben Robles is so close with his friends at Beckwith Hall that they trust him with their lives – or so it might appear when he shaves them. The disposable razor glides forcefully down cheekbones and chin, under the nose, past an ear and over the neckline. Robles’s movements were precise.

“Hold still or you’re going to be missing more than this stubble,” Robles said half-seriously.

Robles is working fast for 8 a.m. Or perhaps the time seems to pass quickly because of the hilarious exchange between Robles and his client, Matthew Zellmer, a first-year Beckwith resident with cerebral palsy.

“So are we bathing together tonight?” Robles asked.

Zellmer laughed. That was their code for “Do you need me to give you a shower?”

The rest of their conversation ranged from hot chicks to bathroom etiquette. Within an hour, Zellmer was on his way to class and Robles was on to his next personal assistance session.

When he graduates, Robles, senior in ALS, intends to pursue a career in rehabilitation science.

But college is more than preparation for a professional future. And Robles refuses to miss out on all the crazy fun.

In fact, he has a reputation for shaking things up. His jokes are typically of the locker room variety. He has a brawny build and likes to roughhouse with some of the residents with disabilities.

Sometimes his brutish way has been interpreted as recklessness. But there is careful purpose behind the “shocking” things he does and says.

But his manner is not merely an icebreaker, Robles said. It is also an invitation to open conversation. Once people feel free to say what they are thinking, they can connect as genuine friends.

Rich Abrahamson, fellow Beckwith resident, said he preferred Robles’ demeanor to the usual politeness he encounters.

“Girls tend to mother me, and guys pat me on the back,” said Abrahamson, who has cerebral palsy. “But Ruben slaps me on the back. He is not so caught up with hurting my feelings.”

Robles was not always so sure how to interact with disabled peers. It took a pivotal experience in high school to help him understand.

He was a student leader for a physical education class for the mentally and physically disabled. By interacting with them regularly he became convinced that his peers with disabilities were perceptive of able-bodied attitudes.

Body language gives away what spoken language will not, Robles said.

“They can pretty much read someone by their actions, even the way they sit,” Robles said. “Anyone doing a good deed for the week doesn’t get very far.”

Since he came to the University and worked as a personal assistant, Robles has resisted falling into the formality that typically defines interactions with people with disabilities. He enjoys goading other Beckwith residents into insult-fests. When his buddies with disabilities feel comfortable to say whatever they want, then he feels that he can too.

On more than a few occasions, other personal assistants or able-bodied peers have advised Robles to “tone down” his uninhibited style. Robles said he understands their concerns. But he remains determined to keep the atmosphere “open” and “unafraid.”

“That’s the way it should be,” Robles said.