Becoming an Advocate By Jordan Berger (ILR ’17)

Within the same year, I was both diagnosed with a neurological disability and placed into the honors program at my elementary school. As the only student with a disability in my class, I wanted nothing more than to fit in and to fly under the radar. This became more difficult as I started to receive a range of accommodations including the use of a laptop computer and a scribe. As my classmates became more aware of my accommodations, they begin to question why I was receiving special treatment. I didn’t know how to respond and often felt grateful when my teachers intervened. However, the replies my teachers’ provided on my behalf, such as “Because I said so” or, “Please don’t ask questions” were not necessarily helpful, At the time, I did not fully understand what it meant to have a disability and I didn’t really know what I thought about this part of my identity.

In fourth grade, I began to understand the impact of my disability on my performance in school and I became more open to sharing my story and accepting an adaptive approach to ensure success. For example, I learned that I did much better in school after learning to type because my handwriting was atrocious due to the way that the impulses travel from my brain to the rest of my body. When I began to further share the fact that I had a neurological disability with my close friends, they were very open to listening and learning. Often they asked if there was anything they could do to help. Usually these offers felt genuine; however, sometimes they felt obligatory or out of pity. Although I typically declined, I assured them that I would let them know if there was anything that they could ever do to help. These positive interactions with my close friends helped me to gradually feel confident in responding to their continued questions.

Now a recent graduate from Cornell, I no longer have the urge to hide my differences. I now realize that rather than feel ashamed, the accommodations I am provided such as having extra time on tests or having to use e-books or enlarged texts are not something for me to be ashamed of. Rather, they help me to gain even greater access to both my education and my surroundings. For example, after my second year of college, I made the decision to begin using handicap parking. Because my disability is not visible, sometimes I receive strange looks after parking my car. Although their reactions can sometimes be off-putting, I know that they do not who I am and that I am doing what is best for me.

Beyond my own personal experience, throughout college, I was involved with disability advocacy on campus, throughout the United States, and throughout the world. My peers have noticed my unwavering commitment to making disability a part of mainstream conversation. I understand that they can be reluctant to ask me why I care so much about the topic. But then I explain my personal connection. Their initial reaction is to apologize, but I explain to them that I am not ashamed. Because my disability is not visible or easily apparent to others, it is something that I certainly could hide. However, I have chosen to be open about it because the alternative would mean denying myself access to the accommodations that I need. In return, I have been thrilled to discover that during my years at Cornell my willingness to flaunt my disability has not only helped me but also was invaluable to others. For example, College was the first time that many of my peers had been labeled as disabled or expected to navigate the accommodations process independently.

My parents’ unconditional support since I was a young girl helped me to develop strong self-advocacy skills that I have used to help others. I have taught many of my peers my own self-advocacy skills and even helped to connect them with other members of the disability community on campus.  My parents also helped me to understand that I was the most knowledgeable about my disability and the way that it impacted me in the classroom. Beginning in Middle School, they therefore insisted that I be included at every meeting regarding my accommodations and that all questions about me and my preferences be directed towards me. Being given authority over my own decision-making since I was a child helped me develop my own voice on this subject and learn early on that my perspective was essential to my success. I am now about to embark on a new chapter in my life as a law student. As I begin to think about my future, I feel passionate that my life experience motivates me to find an employer who is accepting of every aspect of my identity. Most importantly, I plan to continue to be open about who I am with my new classmates and future co-workers, which I believe will help me continue on my desired path toward happiness, fulfillment, personal achievement and success.

 

Jordan Berger ‘17 graduated Cornell from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. At Cornell, Jordan served as the President of the Cornell Undergraduate Student Assembly where she worked to make shared governance at Cornell more accessible and inclusive of all students. With a group of students who were passionate about disability rights and fashion, Jordan helped to create the first student disability fashion exhibit at Cornell called Addressing Ableism. She is currently attending NYU School of Law. Jordan has done disability rights internships at the Israeli Ministry of Justice, the U.S. Department of State, and the White House.

 

 

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