Engineering sophomore Hannah Rieske wanted her audience at the fifth annual SpeakABLE event Tuesday to know that her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was not a disability, but a difference. Rieske was just one of many other University of Michigan students and staff who came together at Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library for a student panel. The event, organized by the Services for Students with Disabilities Advisory Board, provided a platform for students to speak on their disabilities and experience at the University.

Panelists at the event showed passion for advocating for disabilities rights. Many have chosen academic pathways that allow them to use their skills to help others in similar situations. LSA senior Henry Leor Schreibman uses their background in theater to speak on queer and disability rights. “The one area where both the narratives of queerness and disability overlap is labels,” Schreibman said.

“If there’s a label, it means there are enough people who experience the same thing that a label had to be thought of,” they said. “The simple existence of a label meant that I wasn’t alone.”

Schreibman described theater as a space for people who are unaware of an issue to learn about life experiences that are much different from theirs.

“Theater has this opportunity for people who have no idea what’s going to be able to go for entertainment, but also get really crucial information,” they said.

Empathy goes a long way for many of these students, especially when it comes to plans after college, they said. A common theme among presenters was academic hardships due to their disabilities. Many have criticized the University’s diversity, equity and inclusion plan for overlooking rights and access of disabled students, faculty and staff.

“The University-wide plan only mentioned disability three times,” Art & Design sophomore Celeste Adams told the Daily last year. “That was appalling and very, very offensive.”

According to LSA sophomore Emily Levy, a lack of academic accomodations can affect employment possibilities, which in turn makes certain these struggles don’t end after college.  

“Here in a bigger college environment, others people’s view of you matters more than your own view of you,” Levy said. “I’ve missed out on many opportunities solely to my GPA. It’s terrible I can’t tell these people the things I’ve gone through. There’s so many things that don’t appear on a resume.”

Having a disability can mean several things, including having A.D.H.D., depression or autism, among many other conditions. Every individual’s experience is unique, which is why Levy and other panelists spoke on the importance of empathy.

“I’ve gotten sympathy from people, and it does not help,” Levy said. “I would rather see empathy. I don’t want to hear people say, ‘I’m sorry you feel this way.’ I want to hear people say, ‘I understand you feel this way and let me try to make an effort to help you and understand how you feel.’”

LSA junior Felicity Harfield, an SSD Student Advisory Board member, emceed the event. She agreed with the panelists when they said their disabilities made up part of their identities — but they aren’t the only traits that define them.

“Disability is part of our identity, but it’s only part of it,” Harfield said. “It’s more on the fact that we want people to know about it, acknowledge it, and see it not as something that makes us different, but something we can accept in each other.”

Identity is something students in the community think often about. Though they live individualized experiences, they share many similar ones, too.

“We are a community because we have a mutual understanding,” Rieske said. “We all accept each other as we are because we all have individual things going on.”

Though they often can find a sense of comfort within their own community, Rieske and the other panelists emphasized their right to belong to the greater University community, too.

“We’re no different than you,” Rieske said.

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