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September 26, 1991 

Beating the Odds

By Elizabeth Baytion

Had a rough day? Sometimes it seems like nothing’s going right: you flunked that chemistry exam, you and your roommate aren’t speaking and, to top that, you have a ton of homework to do.

The pressures of college life affect all students, but can be especially overwhelming to a freshman. Like most of her classmates, computer math and science major Dawn Teresa Parkot struggles with the homesickness that accompanies being away from her family for the first time. And, like everyone else, she feels the pressures of keeping up with her courses, having to make new friends and generally trying to fit in.

But Dawn holds a special place in the 1995 graduating class. Although there have been other disabled students at Notre Dame, she is the first undergraduate with multiple disabilities.

Dawn has Cerebral Palsy, meaning that she suffers from paralysis, or the loss of volitional control over motor functions, due to a brain disorder that occurred at birth. When she was born, there was deficiency of oxygen in her brain. Although Cerebral Palsy may also be cause by pre- and post-natal diseases or by accidents that occur in early childhood, asphyxia is probably the most common immediate cause of the disability.
Because of the cerebral disorder she experienced as an infant, Dawn encounters difficulty is doing things that we take for granted. She is unable to walk, speak clearly or control the motor functions of her body. Though she can discern vague shapes and forms, Dawn is also legally blind.

When asked what it is she can do that people don’t often think she’s capable of, Dawn spelled on her letter board, “T-H-I-N-K!”

Fr. Oliver Williams, C.S.C, who assumed the responsibilities of the new Office of Disabled Students this past August, admits that this university has not had many disabled students. When asked if Dawn’s disability played a role in her admission to Notre Dame, Fr. Williams replied that “anyone who meets the qualifications is admitted to Notre Dame, and we find out that they happen to be disabled, then we make all the arrangements we need… to make it work for them.”

In Dawn’s case, those arrangements include a special living space in Pasquerilla East Hall to accommodate her double bed and computer system. Dawn shares the four-room “suite”__ essentially a combined quad and double – with two roommates. The standard sink in her room has been exchanged for one specially designed for a person with impaired vision and coordination. Electronic devices have also been placed on the doors of Dawn’s rooms, as well on the entrances of Pasquerilla East Hall, so that she can open them by remote control from her power-wheelchair and her bed.

Over the past summer, sophomores Jenny Galvin and Maura Carroll requested to room with Dawn after all the residents of Pasquerilla East Hall received a letter concerning Dawn’s disability. ‘I just thought it’d be great to be a roommate and a friend to someone I can learn so much from, and Maura feels the same way,” says Jenny. When asked about their expectations and anxieties about the new arrangement, Jenny admitted that she hadn’t expected the communication barrier to be so profound, although now it doesn’t pose a problem now.

One of Dawn’s avenues of communication includes speech, although those who aren’t accustomed to it may not be able to understand. She also uses a “letter board,” a piece of cardboard with the alphabet in large type written, so that Dawn can point to the letters and spell out words.


Another option for communication is a lap-top computer with an electronic voice, on which Dawn taps out the words in Morse code by hitting a switch with her left hand. However, she still isn’t comfortable using the computer voice to communicate, and therefore most often uses her “letter board.”  


The Office of Disable Students has arranged for Dawn to have five student aides. Senior Kristin Roman visits her on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to help her morning routine: getting out of bed, getting dress, doing leg exercises and gathering her books and notebooks together before her eight o’clock chemistry class.
















“I thought we’d have to do a lot more for her,” says Kristin, who is interested in a career in physical therapy. “I didn’t think she’d be as independent, just because anyone that I’d ever worked with was just not as smart as she was, didn’t have a strong will to be independent.”

With a schedule that includes chemistry, calculus, music, English and physical education, Dawn’s curriculum is very typical of that of any freshman. Although she can’t take notes, she attends classes and studies by listening to tapes of the lectures. She has also been assigned an assistant for each of her classes. One of their duties is to read aloud Dawn’s homework assignments, until her textbooks are also put on tape.

The Freshman Resource Center handles all of Dawn’s exams. Classes like music, in which the test questions can be answered by having Dawn, spell out a name or date; and chemistry, which has multiple-choice test questions, don’t pose any problems. But some classes, calculus, for example, prove to be more difficult to adapt to Dawn’s capabilities.

Another freshman, Katie Bessiere, attended high school with Dawn in Morristown, New Jersey, where Dawn graduated third in her class. Katie says that the students at her school were “amazed at her ability… and her drive and her ambition.”

What were the reactions of Dawn’s peers when they heard that she had been accepted to Notre Dame? “I think that they were surprised more so because she was going so far away, but not because she got in,” Katie says. But she acknowledges, “I imagine that there were people who thought that a lot of her grades were “grace” grades, that her teachers just gave her the A’s because of effort and not really because she deserved them.” To the contrary, Katie, who was in Dawn’s English class in high school, adds that she knows the teachers weren’t surprised about Dawn’s acceptance to Notre Dame.

And what does Dawn have to say about her new college lifestyle? Well, when asked about how her expectations held up to reality, she laughs. She admits that it’s rough, that she’s homesick and finds it difficult living away from home. In response to the question about what she’s found to be the hardest part of freshman year. Dawn replies, “EVERYTHING!” with a smile and another rueful laugh.

But that certainty won’t stop her pursuing her dreams, like attending a prestigious undergraduate university or seeking a place on the 1996 Para Olympics Equestrian team.

A friend of Dawn’s says, “Whenever we go to lunch everyone walks by saying ‘Hi Dawn. How are you doing?’” Maura and Jenny agree that everyone already seems to know their roommate by name. Jenny adds, “I think Dawn has assimilated very well to the whole Pasquerilla East Hall/Notre Dame community.”

It seems that Fr. Williams voices the opinion of all of Dawn’s friends and acquaintances when he says, “We hope and pray that it works out for her here. Dawn definitely is doing her part; the rest is up to us.”