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Disability Studies Initiative Opens the Eyes and Minds of Its Students

stark1Instructor Steve Foelsch leads the discussion during one of his disability studies courses at Maryville University. (Photos by the Starkloff Disability Institute)


Disability Studies Initiative Opens the Eyes and Minds of Its Students

College-style program shows disabled how to overcome their biggest obstacle: themselves  

By David Sheets

Further Reading
Starkloff Disability Institute
Maryville University
Paraquad, Inc.
National Council on Independent Living

Susan Menhard was practicing on her trampoline when she became an underrepresented minority.

“I was a national competitor and quite good at it,” the former gymnast said. “But I was at practice and just lost concentration on a routine I had done thousands of times.”

Menhard landed on her head and severed her spinal cord. In an instant she became a quadriplegic.   

Steve Foelsch was cruising on his motorcycle when he joined the same minority class.  

“That was 1985. I just turned 20,” he said. “And for a long time afterward I was riddled with guilt because I had wrecked my motorcycle and knew it was my own damn fault,” he said.   

Foelsch entered a turn too fast. He was not wearing a helmet. He also became a quadriplegic.   

For a time, both were depressed and discouraged. Both felt their self-esteem scrape bottom.   stark2Susan Menhard teaches The Next Big Step program, which helps disabled people find jobs and assists businesses in hiring them.

But today, Menhard and Foelsch are active, socially engaged professionals who reach out to others who are like themselves as well as those who are non-disabled. They work for the St. Louis-based Starkloff Disability Institute, a nonprofit institution committed to the full participation of disabled people in American society.  

“Disability is really a taboo subject,” Foelsch said. “Some people can talk about race, they can talk about sex, they can talk about religion a lot easier than they can talk about disability because it’s a subject that inspires fear. Disability is the only minority group that you can join at any time.”   

Central to the Institute’s agenda is the Disability Studies Initiative (DSI), a college-course-style training program conducted with assistance from Maryville University in suburban St. Louis. The initiative provides accredited, specialty instruction in such subjects as the history of disability, public policy development related to disability, independent living, and disability rights advocacy.   

Menhard was a DSI student who now is a program director at the Institute. Foelsch directs DSI, among other Starkloff education efforts.  

“DSI is a way to break into the community and get people used to seeing and experiencing people with disabilities,” Menhard said.   

Max and Colleen Starkloff, along with their partner, David Newburger, opened the Institute in 2003 as the culmination of a dream: not only to help society see past people’s disabilities to their abilities, but also to help the disabled acquire the same perspective.  

A federal study last year put overall employment by the disabled at only 24 percent, due in part to the uncertainty among many in this group as to whether they can find jobs and live independently. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that nearly 60 million disabled Americans are out of work or underemployed.    stark3Colleen Starkloff, co-founder of the Starkloff Disability Institute

“Our feeling was, let’s do a disability studies program and teach people that if you expect more of disabled people, they will expect more of themselves,” Colleen Starkloff said. “We want anybody who comes out of the classes we teach, whether they’re disabled or not, to understand that you have to expect disabled people to climb high mountains and achieve great goals.”   

Maryville entered the picture after a former dean at the school had asked the Starkloffs to speak to students who studied rehabilitation counseling at the university. The dean was trying to broaden the scope of Maryville’s rehabilitation services program, and he had heard of the Starkloffs’ decades-long commitment to disability awareness.   

At that time, the Starkloffs were well known for founding Paraquad Inc., a nonprofit disability services and advocacy organization in St. Louis, in 1970; and the National Council on Independent Living in 1982. Max Starkloff, who was paralyzed in a traffic accident in 1959, died in 2010. Colleen, a former physical therapist, continues their crusade.     

That invitation to speak at Maryville spawned a partnership through which the Institute created and teaches DSI courses that are part of Maryville’s Rehabilitation Services undergraduate degree program.   

Upon completion of their DSI coursework, students can receive a certificate in independent living—defined as a philosophy of self-determination, self-respect, and equal rights for disabled individuals. The certificate enables recipients to find jobs at independent living centers, disabled student programs at universities, and in corporate human resources.   

“Maryville and its College of Health Professions value our relationship with the Starkloff Disability Institute,” said Charles Gulas, PhD, current dean of the college at Maryville. “We also hope we can honor … the achievements made by the Starkloffs and empower the next generation of leaders and advocates.”   

Menhard is among those leaders. She oversees the Institute’s Next Big Step program, which provides tools for disabled people to find work and assists businesses in hiring them. Job seekers attend a class created by Menhard for four hours a week, much of that in a classroom setting, for 15 weeks starting each February.   

There is no tuition; the Institute’s costs are supplemented by grants and contributions from business partnerships.   

Growing interest in these classes has created a waiting list of people from many ages and backgrounds. The Institute is considering a second 15-week session, perhaps each fall. It also wants to take the training national.   stark4David Newburger, co-founder of the Starkloff Disability Institute

“What’s really unique is that we bring in corporations and employers to do the training,” Menhard said in describing The Next Big Step. “What usually happens then is the people who are disabled and who are learning the ins and outs of interviewing, also are educating the employers. So the employers become comfortable and knowledgeable about people with disabilities and learn the advantages of hiring them.”   

It was a big move for Menhard to accept a management role such as this, and probably an impossible one were it not for DSI.   

“I thought the DSI was my niche and I would never leave it, but then the Next Big Step initiative came along,” she said. “And frankly, the independent living movement of the last few years has helped me out quite a bit as well, because I was not born a quadriplegic. And when this accident happened, I didn’t want to live. It was the independent living movement and what I learned about myself through DSI that got me to thinking there’s life out there and work I could do.”   

Foelsch has just 18 to 20 students in DSI courses at a time to make one-on-one instruction easier.    

The students learn that the obstacles confronting the disabled are not preordained.   

“What I try to tell them is that people with disabilities are great at keeping themselves down, at having negative attitudes about themselves,” Foelsch said. “I remember after my motorcycle accident, I felt it, too. But when I stopped looking at disability as a subject of pity, I began to realize it was powerful stuff.  

“You see, nothing in human culture is natural or inevitable,” he continued. “Everything is based on conscious or unconscious decisions. Do we put stairs here or do we put a ramp here? There is nothing preordained that we have to install stairs.”   

Sarah Schwegel said she felt her eyes begin to open to a broader potential for herself after just the first few weeks as a DSI student. The Maryville undergraduate, who is studying Rehabilitation Services and political science, was born with spinal muscular atrophy. 

“Going into the program, I really did not know about the disability rights movement or details about the Americans with Disabilities Act. I pretty much knew only the basics that most Americans are familiar with,” she said. “But after taking classes in the program, I have learned so much about disability history and how it’s really a part of everyone’s history.”   

Colleen Starkloff said knowing that history better prepares the new, young leaders of the independent living movement how best to advance justice and awareness.   

“Our philosophy is that disabled people are the best spokespersons for issues related to disability,” she said.   

Institute co-founder Newburger, who is post-polio, reinforced that point. He explained that whenever people see him in or near a hospital, they assume he’s a patient because he’s in a wheelchair.  

“There’s a difference between having a disability and being ill,” he said. “I’m disabled; I’m not ill.”●

David Sheets is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Published in our March 2014 issue.

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