By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
It’s important to Emilee Beers that fellow students at Grand Canyon University know this: People with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else.
“I wanted to get involved while growing up with a disability – I have cerebral palsy – and I didn’t feel included in clubs or churches,” she said.
People didn’t know how to interact with her during high school in Orange County, Calif. “From my own experience, the biggest hurdles (others) jump over is seeing peers with a disability as a person, not their disability,” she said.
As president of the GCU student club Canyon Inclusive, she will be a part of the first Disability Awareness Week on campus Oct. 12-15. Each day on the Promenade outside the Student Union, groups and programs that promote inclusiveness of people with disabilities will share information, music and prizes.
The dedicated week has been a passion project for Dr. Rebekah Dyer, one that was postponed from last spring because of COVID-19. Her research has shown that 600 million people worldwide live with a disability, many which aren’t visible.
Teaching special education in her 20s, then as a children’s pastor and finally at GCU, where she teaches special education courses in the College of Education, she has seen the need to make the physical environment assessible to people with disabilities but also improve the general public's engagement with an often overlooked population.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act was good,” she said of 1990 ADA, which guarantees equal opportunity in employment, public accommodations and other areas. “But another avenue we need to take is attitudinal. They have those rights through the law, but we need to change people’s attitudes toward it.”
At times she still hears, “Why do we have to do this just so they can participate?”
Dyers’ answer fits snugly into GCU’s faith environment.
“Inclusion of individuals with disabilities is an important part of representing the Christian faith. We are all God’s children, created in His image,” she explained in a video message to be played at Chapel on Monday, citing the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 that inspires it.
“The students, faculty and staff at GCU are part of the body of Christ, and it is important that we include all parts of the body in everything we do in order to honor Christ.”
A group will be represented each day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., starting Monday:
- Best Buddies, a student club which creates friends between GCU students and adults with disabilities at the local organization ACCEL, a Valley nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities
- Canyon Inclusive, a student club that provides opportunities for GCU to volunteer in campus ministry programs
- ASD Connection, a GCU program that supports students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Unified, a ministry program on campus that serves individuals with disabilities
When meeting a person with a disability for the first time, Beers said, people often will direct questions to an assistant or teacher instead of talking directly to the person with a disability. But they are not “fragile and breakable” individuals. They are people like anyone else.
“When talking with GCU students some of them have never interacted with someone with a disability, so it’s just letting them know it’s OK to act with as much normalcy as possible,” she said. “We all want to be treated normal, if such a thing as normal exists.”
It means that it’s OK to ask them about their disability, too.
“A lot of times they are afraid to offend the person,” she said. “But anyone loves to talk about themselves. They will say, ‘I have Down Syndrome and I am proud!’"
Beers said her small club has seen some heartwarming moments unfold at churches, such as Christ’s Church of the Valley, when students interact with people with disabilities who quickly warm up to the moment.
“They become confident they are not alone and not segregated from typical students,” said the senior majoring in Elementary Education with an Emphasis on Special Education.
That transcends into the ministry. Some falsely conclude that those with developmental disabilities don’t understand.
“But working in these programs I have seen such a love for God, for people, I don’t think we give them enough credit in believing in religion,” she said. “I really think it’s important to let our special friends know that God loves you and created you and has a special plan for you. A lot of them feel hopeless, but we are here to welcome you home.”
The week's events could go a long way toward helping understand a wide variety of disabilities, Dyer said. Autism takes many forms, for example, and the ASD Connection program shows students with autism how to navigate the social aspects of being on campus.
“I think this generation right now that is in college has a strong voice for inclusion of anyone,” she said. “They love to support any cause that’s about that.”
Maddie Bucky is one of those students. She didn’t come to it through personal experience. She was a three-sport high school athlete who simply was looking for another way to get involved and found a group that exposed her to people with disabilities.
“I saw those kids and their passion for life and how smart they are. I think they are overlooked in life and that shouldn’t be the case,” she said. “I want to show they are no any different than us, and we should include them.”
After transferring to GCU last year, the junior majoring in Special Education joined Best Buddies and became this year’s president of the club, which pairs GCU students with a person with disabilities at ACCEL.
“I got paired up with one of the best boys ever,” she said. “He opened my eyes.”
She saw a person who had challenges with everyday life and looked different.
“But it didn’t matter. He had a smile on his face every day. It opened my eyes,” she said of lamenting her own setbacks. “Even if I had a bad day, he lifted me. It made my Christian faith stronger.”
She said that God has a plan for everyone and to embrace it, just like this boy who eagerly welcomed his new friend.
“So I’m not going to sit around and pout,” she said. “I’m going to put a smile on my face. This is God’s plan.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.