On Monday September 24, the University hosted its annual disABILITIES panel in the Villanova Room that featured five speakers: Sam Saf, Rachel Gans, Mimi Gabor, Ron Nagel and Carter Young. These brave individuals took the time to address the packed room and to give insight into what it takes to navigate campus as a differently abled person and how we as a community can do better in making campus more accessible for everyone.
The panel started with brief introductions of everyone, followed by Sam Saf as the first designated speaker. Saf told his story of being born deaf, but how he was given the opportunity to hear again through cochlear implants — a piece of equipment that replaces the broken parts of his inner ear to send sound signals to his brain. He mentioned that his way of compensating for lack of hearing was to rely on keeping speech “clear and concise,” making him a great communicator, even though he struggles to hear what he is responding to on many occasions. When asked about the University’s community and the challenges he had adjusting here, he had nothing but positive things to say.
“Now that we’re all in college, [people] tend to be more mature,” Saf said. He had no trouble fitting in and was even able to find ways to keep his love of competitive sports alive through Villanova’s club teams.
Next on the panel was Rachel Gans. Gans is one of the co-founders of Mental Health Advocacy and Awareness (MHAA) on campus and was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety and depression. Gans talked about her background and how she was able to work her way through community college before transferring to Villanova. She touched on an important topic of disability: invisibility.
“One of the unique struggles of mental illness is that you look ‘normal’ while suffering through your symptoms,” Gans said.
She spoke about how it’s hard for others to see a difference in her when her symptoms are flaring up versus when they’re being managed easier which makes it extra important for her to communicate with others when something is wrong. Her unique challenges inspired her to co-found MHAA in order to work with students going through similar struggles and to provide a safe haven so they don’t feel as along, as well as to try and eliminate some of the stigma surrounding mental health.
Mimi Gabor was the next speaker and she contributed to the panel as the founder of VUnited, an organization that works to help differently abled people learn important life skills so they can foster a sense of independence. Gabor was inspired by her best friend from kindergarten Harry, who had Down’s Syndrome. When it came time for the two of them to head to college, Mimi was able to come to Villanova while Harry went to Syracuse thanks to a program called InclusiveU.
“Harry was having all of the same experiences I was and I wanted to give those with similar circumstances the same opportunities,” she said. VUnited is still a new organization on campus, but Gabor hopes that it will continue to grow in the upcoming years.
With arguably the most enthusiasm and spirit on the panel was Ron Nagel, a Special Olympics representative who was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome as a child. Nagel started by telling the audience more about himself including how he graduated from East Stroudsburg University and has an affinity for all genres of music. While at school there, Nagel got involved with the campus radio station which gave him the of confidence to try out for the Special Olympics. Nagel then spoke about how over time the Special Olympics “made [him] a better team player and a better man.” Nagel launched into details about how through the Special Olympics, he was able to find common ground with others and work as an advocate for the members on his team that couldn’t advocate for themselves. He works as a mentor and a leader, making sure to keep an eye on his teammates in order to make sure they’re all included. Nagel showed what it means to be supportive of all of those around you, which was the underlying current of the panel that night.
The last speaker of the panel was Carter Young, an individual who was on the spectrum of autism. Young spoke about how his disability was easy to notice but hard to understand since he understood he could be off putting. He talked about the constant dialogue he had going on in his head in order to remind himself to do things that other people took for granted. He spoke about the fact that no matter how well he was doing, one little mistake could screw up an entire interaction, comparing it to, “you miss one note, it ruins the song.”
Young was the first to speak most critically of campus and say the ways in which he believed Villanova could improve. He believed that people were polite in public, but behind closed doors it was a different story. It seemed that sentiment was shared by the other panelists as they seemed to shake their heads in agreement.