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Law adds opportunities; students want more

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Kristina Reis, Charles Stack and Patrick Juris

Clockwise: Kristina Reis, Charles Stack and Patrick Juris are among 394 students registered to receive services from the Disability Resource Center. All are on the student advisory committee of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Photos: Kathryn Marchetti


Charles Stack wanted to go to medical school.

But after he began suffering absence seizures — “blanking out” for a few seconds or minutes — he changed his career path, earning a public health degree that helped him become a consultant.

“I’ve had seizures in class — they’re embarrassing when people don’t understand,” Stack said. “Epilepsy is an invisible disability.

“The seizures had an affect on me academically, and I didn’t feel like I could physically manage going through medical school.”

Stack, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1986, says he made the right choice. Several decades after completing his master’s in epidemiology and infectious diseases, Stack, 55, returned to UIC as a doctor of public health candidate.

“I picked a career that was compatible with my disability status and catered my academics to that,” he said. “I’m glad I did.”

Stack is among 394 students registered to receive services from the Disability Resource Center.

 

Encouraging students to be advocates

Sarah Franz, a doctoral student in disability studies, coordinates services for deaf and hard of hearing students at the center. A deaf student herself, Franz knows how important it is to have interpreters ready to go as soon as class begins.

“If the student shows up to class one day and there’s not an interpreter, or the interpreter is late, the student will miss out,” she said. “I actually know how that feels.”

Franz, who lost her hearing as a teenager after an illness, uses real-time captioning in her classes: an interpreter types what the professor and other students say, and Franz reads it on a laptop.

“Professors here are very open to having interpreters in their classroom,” she said.

She runs into problems in class when online videos aren’t captioned. She’d also like an American sign-language class offered at UIC.

Most of all, she encourages students to be advocates for the services they need.

“Policy is just words on paper unless it’s activated,” she said. “The Americans with Disabilities Act gives us a platform to support our own rights and needs.”

 

"I would love for people to open their eyes"

Graduate student Kristina Reis hopes to raise awareness for the disability community as a member of the student advisory committee of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

“If it were up to me, everybody — disabled or not — should have to use a wheelchair or a walker for a week just to see how we are, how we think,” she said.

“But until that could happen, I would just love for people to open their eyes.”

Reis, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007, uses either a walker or an electric wheelchair, though she can walk independently if she has the energy.

“It depends on how comfortable I am with the environment,” said Reis, a nondegree student in the health policy administration graduate program.

She commutes to campus by paratransit or the Metra train twice a week for her classes in the School of Public Health.

She sometimes has difficulty opening heavy doors and navigating around desks, but classmates and professors have been accommodating, she said.

“Everybody kind of helps everybody out,” she said. “We’re almost like a little community and for the most part, I’m just another regular student.”

 

"Definitely a lack of voice"

Patrick Juris, a senior in sociology, has spina bifida and uses crutches to get to class from his room in Beckham Hall. He hasn’t had many problems navigating the campus, but when a need does arise he knows where to turn.

“The only issue I’ve had is when I need a class to be relocated if they are a little too spread out on campus,” he said. “The Disability Resource Center has helped with that.”

Juris, chair of the student advisory committee, would like to see more social events or organizations geared toward students with disabilities.

“There’s definitely a lack of voice for students with disabilities,” he said. “I can pass a student who is in a wheelchair and there is no connection. There’s a missing link of culture and activities.”

He wants the student advisory committee to find ways to help students with disabilities improve their career skills.

“In general for students with disabilities, there’s an advocacy need to help support them in careers after graduation,” he said.

 

Help in choosing a career

When Stack graduated with his master’s degree in 1982, he couldn’t work a traditional 9-to-5 job because of his epilepsy. He started his own consulting firm, which allowed him to work from home at his own pace.

After brain surgery in 1999, Stack gained control of his seizures. He has since co-founded Chicago-based Constant Compliance, a biotech company that develops clean water technologies.

When he returned to UIC in 2006, one of the first things he did was register as a disabled student. Though he doesn’t have seizures anymore, his medication can make him drowsy. The School of Public Health made an office available to lie down and gives him extra time to complete course work.

“I don’t have the academic stamina of other students — I can’t take three or four classes at a time,” he said. “I have to pace myself.”

Stack volunteers as a career adviser for the Alumni Association.

“Students who have disabilities many times experience some type of discrimination in the workforce,” he said.

“It’s much better now, but there are always perception problems.

“You have to know who your angels are — people within the family, friends, business community and fellow students — people who can help you with your career path,” he said. “I tell students to pick a career that excites them but also is compatible with their disability.

“I try to give them hope that these can be overcome.”

christyb@uic.edu


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