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A chance to understand disabilities

By Kimberly Young

April 9, 2007 9:57 p.m.

As she sat in a wheelchair, Jeong-hee Ku struggled to pull on pants while not moving her legs.

Ku, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, is not paralyzed, but on Monday, she and a group of other students simulated disabilities in an attempt to understand what disabled students go through on a daily basis.

“Sometimes we don’t really understand what it’s like to be disabled. Now I know what it’s like, and it’s really, really hard,” Ku said.

“Alternate Your Abilities,” an event organized by the Disabled Student Union, aimed to give students without a disability a chance to feel what it is like to have one.

Members of the organization said they hoped it would help students understand what a disabled student’s daily life is like.

Students simulated physical and learning disabilities by performing tasks with such impediments as a blindfold or wheelchair, as well as other physical handicaps.

Suhn Rhie, president of the DSU and a fourth-year biochemistry student with muscular dystrophy, said she hoped the event would help people understand how disabled students live and break negative stereotypes about those with disabilities.

DSU had been deactivated the past few years, and Rhie said she has been trying to recruit members with disabilities or students interested in learning about such things.

“If we are discriminated (against) and need to change something; we need a group to change things,” Rhie said. “That is why I wanted to reactivate the group.”

She said the group helped launch the disabilities studies minor at UCLA, making it the first school with such a program.

DSU has weekly meetings with guest speakers who have succeeded with disabilities.

The meetings are also a place where members can talk about their experiences and encourage each other.

“Being hard of hearing is a big part of my identity,” said Michelle Tang, a first-year English student. “The Disabled Student Union helped me be more comfortable with myself because it helped me realize I am not simply a hard-of-hearing person, I also have the potential to be a leader.”

At the event, Tang worked at a booth where students wore muffling headphones and tried to hear a statement, simulating the difficulty Tang experiences.

She said she has learned how to read lips and now uses an FM microphone and hearing aid, but at the event she tested out some of the other activities offered, such as the wheelchair obstacle course.

“It’s really difficult for people who don’t have disabilities to relate and understand what it’s like to have a disability,” she said. “It is important to experience it because it is important to know how other people experience things we take for granted, like walking.”

Students in the organization said they have learned more about disabilities just by working and talking with disabled students.

“I’ve learned that we are not different. We should not treat disabled people differently,” said Vikki Lee, a fourth-year biochemistry student. “We are all disabled in some way.”

Janelle Kulik, a fourth-year psychobiology student, said she became involved in DSU because she is interested in a career helping disabled people.

“It’s a great group of people,” she said. “It puts things in perspective. We don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes, and this is a really good way to learn.”

UCLA Recreation managed the wheelchair obstacle course race, where they also told students about their new kayak recreation classes especially for disabled students.

“Many students with disabilities try to hide their disability because people have negative perceptions of disabilities,” Rhie said. “I want to encourage students to be open about it because it is not something you need to hide.”

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