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June, 2019

Erasing the ‘Disabilities Difference’


By Mary F. McCarthy

Capt. Kevin Fitzpatrick, a doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, talks to
students in Adjunct Professor Leszek Sibilski’s disability policies class last semester.

Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability. It’s a large number, one that virtually guarantees most CUA students will interact with individuals who fit the description of “having a disability.”

But Leszek Sibilski, adjunct professor of sociology, doesn’t want students to focus on the challenges that might separate them from classmates, co-workers and friends with disabilities. Rather, he wants them to realize what they have in common — and how they can help each other.

“As long as we have people with disabilities, there will be someone who won’t be served properly,” says Sibilski, who specializes in the study of disabilities policy. “There is a division between people with disabilities and able-bodied citizens. I want to erase the difference. The easiest way to erase it is to educate and build up awareness in every young person.”

Global Disability Policies, a sociology class taught by Sibilski, is designed to instill that awareness of the rights of people with disabilities. Attracting a diverse enrollment of students from various majors, the class examines social action, social awareness, education and employment of people with disabilities on all six inhabited continents. It pays special attention to U.S. legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The class has been offered twice and will be offered again in the fall semester.

Sibilski, a former Polish Olympian cyclist, became interested in working with athletes with disabilities after covering the New York City Marathon for a Polish magazine in the 1980s. While he was accustomed to being surrounded by “perfect bodies” as an Olympian, at the marathon he saw amputees and people with other disabilities competing. He took this experience back to Poland and soon became involved in international efforts on behalf of disabled athletes. He organized a program to send several Polish athletes to the United States for the New York City Marathon and now serves on the International Paralympic Committee in Bonn, Germany, as a member of its Education Committee.

Katie Bleekrode, a junior political science major from Atlanta, had a personal interest in Sibilski’s class. She has a genetic neuromuscular disorder that has only begun to affect her recently.

“As a person with a disability, I wanted to learn more about what is available to me in terms of opportunities,” she says. “I was hoping to understand these kinds of policies that will help me in the future.”

Bleekrode also feels that this class encourages students to “aspire to shape disability policy in such a way that it benefits everyone.”

The sociology class includes visiting lectures by members of the World Bank, Special Olympics Committee, Mental Disability Rights International and U.S. Department of State. One class met at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where students learned how injured soldiers not only are treated there, but also undergo rehabilitation to help them reenter society.

“They have a lot of life to live, a lot of challenges to get back into the community,” said Capt. Kevin Fitzpatrick, the doctor who spoke to Sibilski’s class in December. Fitzpatrick explained how it takes an interdisciplinary team of physical therapists, psychologists, surgeons and rehab specialists to provide injured soldiers with the psychological and social support they need to reintegrate into society after serious injuries.

Sibilski takes his classes to Walter Reed because he thinks it introduces them to several important considerations for disability policies.

“First, my students learn about issues related to disabled veterans,” he says. “Second, they learn a very important civics lesson. There is a cost to maintain our country free and safe. Third, military services bring different teamwork ethics. The solidarity among soldiers has no match. This is a great lesson for my students — let’s do something together.”

“I think that going on the outings to places such as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center helped me to see firsthand what kind of careers are out there in terms of helping people with disabilities,” Bleekrode says. “I was pleasantly surprised by what Walter Reed hospital offers to those with injuries from the war. They really worked to ensure that these soldiers would be well equipped to face society” once they leave the hospital.

Noelle Hughes, B.A. 2006, took Global Disability Policies in the spring of 2005. She was also very moved by the visit to Walter Reed.


“Learning about persons with disabilities in a class is enlightening, but really relating to a person with disabilities is an even more profound experience,” she says, adding that the class helped change her outlook. Now she is more confident interacting with people with disabilities and offering them help.

“If I see a blind man struggling on the Metro today, I do not hesitate to help him for fear of embarrassing him,” she says. “At the same time, I understand that this person is an independent adult, regardless of any disability he might have, and there's no reason to believe that he can't achieve all of the things that persons without disabilities are capable of. In the end, we're all human and want to be treated with the same respect.”

Jessica Stepp, a senior Spanish for International Service major from Bristol, Conn., says the class encouraged her and her classmates to “foster a greater sensitivity toward people with disabilities.

“A large percentage of people will experience a disability in their lifetime, so it is important not to view a disability as something abnormal; it should be just another part of life,” she says. “This acceptance will only be fully realized when there is universal access to all services and areas.”

As a result of taking this class, Bleekrode is interning this semester with the Department of Health and Human Services Office on Disability. She hopes to see firsthand the differences that can be made in policy to help those with disabilities.

Bleekrode also hopes to serve as an example.

“As a person with a disability, I want to be a testament to others of all that people with disabilities are capable of,” she says.

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Last Revised 01-Mar-07 11:01 AM.