At the second annual Empathy dinner on Friday night, a group of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers were bound, blindfolded or given earplugs as their brothers aided them through the meal, as part of an effort to simulate the day-to-day struggles that students with disabilities face.
At the end of the dinner, LSA junior Lars Johnson, philanthropy chair for Pi Kappa Phi, announced that throughout the year, the fraternity raised $875 to donate to the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, a local nonprofit organization that aims to provide support and services to people in the community with disabilities.
According to Johnson, Pi Kappa Phi also typically raises more than $7,000 a year for their national philanthropic organization Push America — which aims to enrich the lives of people with disabilities — as well as additional money for local organizations, such as the Ann Arbor Center for Independent living.
Jill Rice, coordinator of services for deaf and hard-of-hearing students at the University, gave a presentation about challenges University students with disabilities face as well as services the University provides for those students.
Rice said she estimated there are about 2,700 students with disabilities at the University, but only 1,700 actually registered with the Services for Students with Disabilities branch of the University’s student affairs office.
In an interview before her presentation, Rice said she was very impressed with the idea of giving people a chance to see what it’s like to have a disability.
“I think it’s a good experience to see how somebody might feel (being disabled),” Rice said. “… We are all only temporarily able. You never know when a car wreck is going to mess you or I up.”
Engineering sophomore Nick Finan, who emulated the symptoms of tetraplegia — the partial or complete loss of use in limbs and torso — during the meal, said experiencing the limitations of a disability was difficult, but it gave him a new admiration for those with incapacities.
“It’s frustrating not having control,” Finan said. “It gives me a lot of respect of how they live their life and make it day to day.”
Other fraternity members also found the experience valuable, gaining respect not only for the difficulties people with disabilities face, but also for the work of caregivers for disabled people.
LSA sophomore Peter Sesek said his experience at last year’s empathy dinner made him realize how difficult it is to not have abilities you’re used to.
“I was blind (as part of the dinner) last year,” Sesek said. “That feeling of being dependent on someone is not something people are used to.”
LSA freshman Garrett Rizk said the dinner helped him realize how lucky he is.
“It’s definitely an eye-opening experience,” Rizk said. “You can think about having a disability, but actually being put into the experience, it really gave me a higher appreciation for people with disabilities.”
In his closing remarks to his fraternity brothers, Johnson summed that Pi Kappa Phi annually hosts this event in order to create equality and empathy between those who are able and disabled.
“Sympathy is no good; no one wants sympathy,” Johnson said. “Empathy is what allows us … to see each other as equals. That’s why we’re here.”