The Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University

New adviser seeks to guide people past the awkwardness of disability

January 25, 2017 by JoLynne Lyon

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Mary Ellen Heiner

The IDASL program has trained students on addressing disability issues since 2001. In 2017, it is getting a new advisor. While new to the program, Mary Ellen Heiner has long been dedicated to its mission of bringing people with and without disabilities together to find solutions to disability issues.

Her biggest message to class participants: “We’re people. We’re just like them.”

The IDASL (Interdisciplinary Disability Awareness and Service Learning) class is a two-semester, one- to three-credit course available to juniors, seniors and graduate students of all disciplines. The number of credits available depends on the student’s level of involvement.

Heiner has an insider’s view of disability, after years of using braces and crutches, followed by years of using a wheelchair. She has felt the self-consciousness of switching to a wheelchair; a change that happened when the braces broke and she was told it would take four or five weeks to fix them. She tried the wheelchair and made a surprising discovery: “It was the most freeing, liberating move I’ve ever made.”

She could go much greater distances in the wheelchair. Her body got more exercise. “During the summers when the weather is good, I go up to five miles in my wheelchair on campus. It’s exhilarating.”

But she also noticed something else. “When I go across campus, people will veer out way around me, and I know it’s because they’re uncomfortable being around someone with a disability.”

Her goal is to help people get past that discomfort and work toward more understanding. “What is easy for people without disabilities is not easy for a person with a disability,” she said. She hopes people from all fields of study will learn more empathy and find ways to make life more accessible. Wouldn’t it be great if a clothing designer made clothes that worked better with crutches? (People who use crutches bend forward a lot, so dresses are often too long in front, too short in back.) Wheelchair users struggle to keep clothes tucked in, and it’s hard to keep clothes clean near the wheels. It would be wonderful if a designer could help with those issues.

And even with accessible building requirements, Heiner said she’d love it if architects worked with people who had several types of disabilities to get a feel for how they interact with the physical space.

Heiner’s vision is to bring people together so that they can talk comfortably about the issues that face them. It includes helping people with disabilities to communicate in a way that helps others get over that initial hesitation.

“They can see both sides of the coin. They can understand what they need to change in themselves to be more approachable to people without disabilities.”

Heiner is often asked if she wants a push in her wheelchair. Since she’s trying to get exercise, she usually says no. “I think it’s wonderful that they ask,” she said. “The person with a disability shouldn’t be offended that they ask.”

Sometimes, if it’s icy when she’s transferring from the wheelchair to the car, she does say yes because she doesn’t want the chair sliding out from under her. And sometimes a push is nice if she’s using her wheelchair on a steep incline.

She hopes to guide people with and without disabilities over the awkwardness that happens even to well-meaning people. She also hopes to help them deal with deliberate unkindness.

If people with disabilities are called names, it’s hurtful—but the response is still important, she said. “If you turn around and talk to them, they respect you for that. … I would hope that they would approach it like, ‘Can I work with you on this?’ rather than, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ We have to be as forgiving as we expect people without disabilities to be.”

For more information on the IDASL class, visit the CPD website.

SPARC grant supports autism research

January 20, 2017 by JoLynne Lyon

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Drs. Thayne Sweeten and Anthony R. Torres have received a SPARC seed grant from Utah State University to study immune genes in children with autism and their mothers. Their work will investigate whether certain genetic variants are associated with maternal immune activation against the fetus, affecting the child’s intelligence.

The $33,000 in university funding will be used to generate data in support of future research that would be funded from outside sources. SPARC–or Seed Program to Advance Research Collaborations–provides money to catalyze development of interdisciplinary research teams and projects that involve scholarly research in more than one department, research center, college, or institution.

Sweeten is the current Director and Dr. Torres is the Research Coordinator for the Immunology and Genetic Research Laboratory at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. Sweeten is also a Senior Lecturer for the Department of Biology at the USU Brigham City Campus.

Both have studied autism for more than 20 years.

Holiday closures

December 21, 2016 by JoLynne Lyon


The CPD offices are closed Dec. 26-28 and January 2. Clinics close Dec. 22 and re-open January 3. Enjoy your holiday, everyone!

CAC Corner: Accessing Utah’s arts is easier for people with disabilities than you think!

December 16, 2016 by JoLynne Lyon

view of a stageBy Wendy Hassan, Consumer Advisory Council member from the Cache Valley Center for the Arts.

A higher percentage of Utahns attend performing arts events than any other state, and we are second in the nation for attending arts exhibits. There are plenty of opportunities, especially around the holidays, and many of them are free. For example, in Cache Valley in December there are more than a dozen free concerts at the Logan Tabernacle. Many schools have excellent choir and orchestra concerts that would be enjoyed by more than the families of the students.

Access to the arts for people with disabilities may be easier than you think. All arts organizations that apply to the Utah Division of Arts and Museums for funding need to articulate how they are helping individuals of all abilities have meaningful access to their programming.

Individuals with disabilities have performed with Logan Youth Shakespeare, Cache Children’s Choir and many other organizations. Some arts organizations specialize in serving individuals with disabilities, such as Salt Lake’s Art Access/Very Special Arts program. Here in Logan, Valley Dance Ensemble offers a “Limitless” class for individuals of all abilities and local artist Michael Bingham has worked to develop adaptive technologies for artists including a wheelchair that you can paint with. He even gave a TEDxUSU presentation on the subject.

Greater awareness of the needs of individuals with disabilities have led many performing arts groups to experiment with sensory friendly programming. The Kennedy Center’s goal in providing such performances is “to create a performing arts experience that is welcoming to all families with children with autism or with other disabilities that create sensory sensitivities.” Accommodations may include lower sound and light levels, especially for startling or loud sounds or strobe lighting, space in the auditorium to stand or move around, designated quiet areas, smaller crowds and higher light levels in the audience (house lights).

Enjoy your favorite holiday traditions, or discover new ones, but regardless, may you have a safe and happy holiday season.

photo of tedxusu painting chair

Michael Bingham shows video of a wheelchair that allows its driver to paint in this TEDxUSU presentation. The chair was created with the help of the Utah Assistive Technology Program at the Center for Persons with Disabilities.



Policy will be a major focus for new CPD director

December 12, 2016 by JoLynne Lyon


A new director will come to the Center for Persons with Disabilities at the end of January 2017. Dr. Matthew Wappett approaches his new job with experience in leadership, policymaking, program-building and providing services to people with disabilities in the West.

“I’m a pretty collaborative leader,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “I like to work with what we’ve got.”

His duties at Utah State University will be surrounded by change. The inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump will likely have an effect on services nationwide. The health care and insurance systems will likely change, too, and all of that will affect people with disabilities.

Regardless of any changes to programs, Wappett said it will be important to safeguard services to people with disabilities, whether they are funded by federal, state or private programs. “If the federal role shrinks, people need to continue receiving the services that they need and that their families need to live full, productive lives,” he said.

With those issues in mind, Wappett expects policy to be a major focus for the CPD in the coming years. “We want to be the center of expertise in disability to policymakers and the community,” he said. He will focus on increasing the CPD’s profile, communicating its value to the public.

Disability services in Utah are like those in other western states, with a distinct rural/urban divide. People in cities have access to services, while those in remote areas may struggle to get them. “That is a real issue regarding service delivery and comprehensive supports,” he said.

The CPD faces change on a smaller scale, too. A new human services building is under construction on campus, and it will ultimately house many of the CPD programs. When it is complete, some CPD programs that are currently, physically located far from the building will move much closer to the rest of the CPD. Wappett said he would like to see a more cohesive culture, organization-wide. “It will be a collaborative process, and it will take a while,” he said.

Wappett’s background in disability includes a stint as an associate director of the Center on Disabilities and Human Development at the University of Idaho. He also founded and directed the interdisciplinary studies program there. Currently he co-directs the Confucius Institute at the U of I—an opportunity that came partly because he speaks Chinese. But while he has accomplished a lot at that program, he misses disability and looks forward to returning to it.

Assistive technology is an important issue to him; he hopes the CPD can remain engaged in “keeping abreast of technology, and figuring out innovative ways to keep people with disabilities involved in society.”

Postsecondary education and employment for students with disabilities are also big issues for him. It’s not just transition, he said; it’s what comes beyond it.

Dr. Wappett  begins as the new CPD director on January 25.