by Abigail Reitz 

“All colleges have to have someone to deal with disabilities,” said David Golias, directory of disabilities services (DOSS) and CAPS. “Here at Northwestern we believe biblically all are equal and should have equal opportunity to have higher education and we will do what we can to provide reasonable accommodations for students.”

Disabilities Awareness Week is a tool used by DOSS to bring awareness to students on University of Northwestern – St. Paul’s campus of the disabilities that surround them every day, the struggles that people silently suffer from.

“The goal for Disabilities Awareness Week is for all of us to open our eyes and develop an empathy for the experiences of other people right in our midst that can be suffering from things that we don’t even see,” said Dean of Spiritual Formation and Leadership Nina Barnes.

“There are lots of disabilities that no one can see; invisible disabilities.” -Emma Larson

Each year the week has emphasized a different theme. One year the focus of Disabilities Awareness Week was the barriers that people in wheelchairs face. Last year, Northwestern had a woman come speak who is a quadriplegic; she shared her unique experiences in that area.

Throughout the years many chapels have addressed mental illness, not just physical illness. This year, DOSS has decided to dedicate the entire week to bringing awareness and understanding to the disability of mental illness.

“A lot of disabilities are related to mental illness. This is an issue on campus and something that we should care about,” said Emma Larson, president of Students of Disabilities Appreciation, and student representative on The Disabilities Awareness Week planning committee. “Not all disabilities are people in wheelchairs or super obvious. There are lots of disabilities that no one can see, invisible disabilities.”

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in 2015, there were an estimated 43.4 million adults in the US with any mental illness within the past year. This number represented 17.9% of all U.S. adults and, unfortunately, almost half of those suffering did not receive any kind of treatment.

“Mental health is currently the most widespread disability on campus and, yet it so often gets the least attention,” said Barnes.

“Over the last two to three years it [mental illness] has become the prominent disability that DOSS works with,” said Golias.

Even though there are becoming more and more people who suffer from mental illness, there is still a lot of stigma that surrounds it.

“It should be people’s choice to talk about their struggles, but they should not be subjected to a life living in the shadows of guilt and shame over them,” said Barnes.

If a person breaks their leg, they have no shame in going to a doctor to make sure that they are properly treated. When people are not okay mentally there is a stigma surrounding getting help. If God does not answer prayers then there is often an assumption that one is doing something wrong. One does not simply pray for a broken bone. Instead, trust God but also seek medical help. The same is true for mental illness. Praying is important but so is professional help.

“Disabilities are a passion of mine; my brother has severe autism, so I have grown up being on the front lines of disabilities,” said Larson. “The disability community is a majorly underserved population in the church. I want people to have some knowledge about disabilities, so they do not make assumptions, to see how to interact with these people in the community and workplace.”

Barnes said, “The step beyond awareness to empathy, support and even advocacy –What does this look like for me? This could have an impact on people who do not even realize it because of somebody that they know, a friend, their family, or a teammate. I encourage everyone to come to chapel open.”

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