It happens all the time. Whether others offer a sideways glance,
a snide comment, an overly sympathetic gesture or just flat-out
ignore them, students with disabilities face unsolicited reactions
almost every day.
And all they want is to be treated like everyone else.
Arlene Foster knows this feeling all too well. She has a
neurological problem that mimics multiple sclerosis, although it
hasn’t been diagnosed yet. As a result, bone tumors in her back
make her fall down, so she walks with a cane. While it barely
bothers her, she feels it makes other students look at her
“I walk with a cane but I’m not stupid,” Foster said. “I want to
be treated just like everybody else.”
Foster, a 45-year-old creative writing major, said she is used
to the way other people act toward her, but that doesn’t make it
any easier. She said while some people don’t quite understand her
situation, others try to help her.
“In my experiences so far, people generally make a wide arch
around you, like they’re afraid my disability will rub off on them.
That’s the majority,” Foster said. “The minority of students will
open the door, stand and hold it open and are very polite. It’s
just really sweet and I like that.”
Sometimes, however, people who are just trying to help can cross
the line and end up sounding condescending. Foster recalls one
instance in which good intentions made her feel like a child.
It was the March 9, the week before Spring Break, and Foster was
leaving her last class on her way to meet a professor. While
standing in front of Clark A204 trying to decide whether to cross
over the B-wing, she was approached by a staff member she
recognized from the sociology department.
“She came up and in a patronizing tone said, ‘Do you need help
finding something?’ I told her I was just deciding and she said,
‘Do you not know where you’re going?'” Foster said. “Then feeling
the need to still guide me as a child she said, ‘Did you know there
is an elevator?’ I have been here for eight years, all I was trying
to do was decide which way to go.”
Foster said this incident really affected her. She began to
recall other conversations between herself and staff members,
students and professors.
“It really hit me in the face,” she said. “This is how I’m
viewed, as a child. You condescended me because I use a cane. I was
Rosemary Kreston, the director for the Office of Resources for
Disabled Students, understands many people feel the need to be
sympathetic toward people with disabilities, but that is not what
“If someone is too sympathetic, they can become patronizing,”
Kreston said. “It’s not classified as discrimination. (Persons with
disabilities) don’t want to be felt sorry for. When people treat
them differently it doesn’t make them feel good.”
Kreston said that sometimes students don’t know how to react to
people with disabilities and being overly sympathetic can cause a
bad reaction for both sides.
“(The people with disabilities) get angry, which makes the
person think they are bad for doing good things,” Kreston said. “If
you feel defensive then the reaction on the other side is that they
don’t want to talk to disabled people again. It makes for bad
interaction and pushes people further apart.”
Dave Dinnel, who spends part of his time in his wheelchair in
the Lory Student Center visiting with students, said that for the
most part students are really receptive to him.
“The students are wonderful here. I like it,” Dinnel said. “Sure
there’s times when you speak to them and they completely ignore
you. They don’t respond at all. It happens to me on a daily basis.
But generally they’re not really rude.”
Dinnel said he thinks people in Fort Collins are more accepting
than Boulder, where he moved from, but does not understand why
someone wouldn’t speak to him.
“People have the right to talk to whoever they want. I do and
that’s what they do, too,” Dinnel said. “I would never not speak to
someone who spoke to me.”
Foster said she hopes people will look past outward
“What you see on the outside has nothing to do with what you are
on the inside,” Foster said. “I don’t look at people differently.
Why would I base my feelings on the outside? I expect the same from
Foster said that while she feels normal, she wonders how other
people might be getting treated.
“I just walk with a cane. Imagine what other people might be
experiencing,” Foster said.
Dana Hiatt, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, said
most issues concerning people with disabilities never reach the
point of discrimination. Two federal laws have been passed to
prohibit all forms of discrimination: Section 504 in 1977 and the
Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
“The ADA prohibits discrimination on basis of disability in
employment, access to education and a number of other areas,” Hiatt
CSU holds a no-tolerance policy in all areas of discrimination.
Admissions and academic standards are the same for students with
and without disabilities.
Hiatt said that most of the issues concerning disabilities on
campus are resolved without filing grievances, and not a lot of
instances of disability discrimination have been brought to her
Kreston said she believes discrimination on campus has improved,
but what discrimination there is lies below the surface.
“I don’t think discrimination is very overt. The faculty may not
be understanding, but in general the attitude on campus has
improved,” Kreston said. “It’s harder to identify.”
Kreston said she hopes Disability Awareness Days will help
students unlock the mystery of disabilities.
“People don’t understand. They may think (a disabled person) is
a special person, but having a disability doesn’t make them
extraordinary. They’re just like everyone else,” she said. “They’re
just students; some are nice, some are not, and that’s OK. They’re