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They Meet the Challenge

May 2, 1992


Facing Challenges

By Monica Yant

Dawn Teresa Parkot is laughing. Her laugh is contagious. Others seated near by her bright red wheelchair in the University of Notre Dame’s North Dining Hall join in. They’re laughing with her, not at her. They’re used to the sight and the sound of the carefree freshman who seems to find everything in life funny.

They haven’t always been, “For the first time since the 8th grade, people are open to me.” Dawn said of her classmates at Notre Dame. The group of friends and acquaintances Dawn has accumulated in college classes or at a basketball game are people who may have never known a physically disabled person before.

At 20, Dawn is the only multiple disabled undergraduate enrolled in the university and the first student the school has accepted with such a while range of disabilities. She was diagnosed with athetoid Cerebral Palsy when she was 13 months old, a condition that confines her to a wheelchair and causes involuntary movement in her fingers, wrists and face.

Only two of every 1,000 births result in Cerebral Palsy, according to Donna Roberts, director of United Cerebral Palsy Association of Center Indiana, Indianapolis.

Of the three forms of Cerebral Palsy, Ataxic is the mildest. It is characterized by a diminished sense of balance and can affect depth perception. The second spastic is characterized by difficult, stuff, rigid movement and can be totally immobilizing. Persons diagnosed with Athetoid CP, the most disabling of the three exhibit involuntary movements, jerking of the limbs. It is accompanied by the inability to move the limbs consciously.

Roberts noted that because of the involuntary movement, it is probably, the most noticeable and difficult for non-disabled people to become used to.

Dawn also is asthmatic and legally blind. She does not speak coherently, although those close to her generally understand her attempts. Dawn communicates by pointing to letters to spell out thoughts on a folder turned-homemade “letter board.” The alphabet and key words are written on it.

While some may assume Dawn’s disabilities are “disabling” to her, she is angered by those who think her future is limited. A student of math and computer science at one of the nation’s top universities, she aspires to work in computer-assisted graphics for the motion picture or television industry. She also wants to have and adopt children, but realizes the difficulty of balancing a family and a career.

Like many college students, Dawn Teresa Parkot wants it all. What’s hard for her to accept is that other people don’t understand why she does. She came to Notre Dame to get an education and to give one. If she had her way, she’d leave the campus community more willing to accept the disabled for what they really are – just like everyone else.

One of her goals is to expose people to their greatest fears: of having a daughter, sister, or friend with multiple disabilities. “Dawn wants to get people over their inhibitions,” her mother, Kathryn Parkot, said from their home in New Jersey.

When recruiters from Notre Dame told the Parkots that the university needed Dawn, they weren’t lying. “Dawn chose to come here knowing that we didn’t have a whole lot of experience (with multiple disabled students),” said Sister Jean Lenz, assistant vice president for student affairs. In the 1991 – 92 freshman class of more than 1,800 students, approximately 35 are considered disabled. But the figure is misleading, according to associate provost Rev. Oliver Williams, for it considers students with conditions like asthma and hypoglycemia as disabled.

Dawn’s decision to attend Notre Dame posed a risk for both parties. “We wanted to make sure this would be a good place for her,” Williams said. “She’s kind of a trailblazer for the university.” If both parties saw the decision as an experiment, Notre Dame had much to gain from the success. Future students like Dawn might be more easily assimilated into the university if Dawn’s four years went smoothly.

 

For Dawn, the decision was made without knowing what would have to be done at Notre Dame to accommodate her, but she is painfully aware of the uniqueness of her situation.

The university spent almost $10,000 on construction and renovation for Dawn’s arrival, according to Gary Shumaker, assistant director of Physical Plans. A special suite in Pasquerilla East resident hall was constructed by converting a three-room quad and a one-room double into two rooms for Dawn and two for her roommates. The rooms are equipped with mechanical doors and sinks at wheelchair level.

Bathrooms in the residence hall were also renovated to accommodate Dawn, and the university made certain that buildings she would be using were handicapped-accessible. In LaFortune Student Center, bells were installed on outside doors so Dawn could receive assistance entering and leaving the building.

Dawn tools around campus in her electric wheelchair. She travels the campus either surrounded by a group of friends or speeding by unsuspecting pedestrians. Either way, those walking with or near her must make an effort to keep up with her pace, for Dawn Teresa Parkot is a young woman on the move.

If Dawn had doubts about the physical changes Notre Dame would make, she knew less of what to expect socially. She entered college like all other freshman, ready to face strangers as roommates and neighbors.

The university undertook the task of finding compatible roommates and a staff of aides after Dawn accepted her admission. A letter to the residents of Pasquerilla East residence hall early last summer explained the situation and asked for students volunteering to be Dawn’s roommates. The letter caught the eyes of sophomores-to-be Jenny Galvin and Maura Carroll.

“It sounded like it would be a challenge,” Galvin said. “It was a heartfelt decision,” Carroll added. But confusion about their responsibilities at the beginning of the year almost got the best of Galvin and Carroll. “The systematic personal care was a problem. They (Notre Dame) didn’t know what we were supposed to do, when to do it,” Carroll said. Tasks like Dawn’s five weekly loads of laundry had been overlooked and her roommates wondered if they were expected to assume extra roles. The unexpected stress caused tension beyond that which other freshman roommates feel. They fought and cried. And the end, they learned from all the mistakes that being friends could pull them through the rough times. The school would eventually assemble a staff of five aides, three tutors and one volunteer to assist Dawn with dressing, bathing, eating and academics.

From day one on campus, Dawn jumped into the academic challenge Notre Dame presented her. She has enrolled in four classes each semester, tape records course lectures and has her books on tape to alleviate the strain of reading. Her academic aides also tape record their readings and sometimes transcribe notes in larger letters so Dawn can see them. Dawn’s professors have to develop different ways of gauging her performance.

“I watch her physical responses in class,” said Margaret DeBoer who taught Dawn’s freshman composition and literature course the fall semester. “I could at times see she was agreeing with the things that were said.” DeBoer said Dawn was an active class participant through these reactions and her written response papers, which took the place of verbal participation. DeBoer pointed out that rather than take written notes in class, Dawn uses her memory. “The mental notes that she could take that amazed me,” DeBoer said.

“With Dawn, you have to be a little more patient, a little more innovative with questions you ask,” her academic adviser Angie Chamblee said. Dawn takes the same exams as her fellow students but must complete them differently. Working one-on-one with a proctor, she is tested at Notre Dame’s Freshman Learning Resource Center. The transfer of information from her brain to the lap board to the proctor is time-consuming and tedious. Most of her exams take about three hours, and a chemistry final last semester took over seven hours. Last semester, she earned a 3.33 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, the equivalent of a B.

When she’s not giving her brain a workout, Dawn can often be found pushing her body’s limitations. Michelle Gelfman, an associate professional specialist in physical education at Notre Dame, designed for Dawn a program of Nautilus weight machine and floor work to improve her muscle control and strength. “We’re pushing her beyond her capabilities,” Gelman said. Although she needs assistance to and from the machines and is limited by her 95-pound frame, Dawn is able to do leg extensions, abdominal work and lower back exercises without an aide.

The confidence she’s gained from weight training shows in her budding social life at Notre Dame. Dawn attends college parties like other freshman, but prefers smaller gatherings with friends. She’s gone to dorm dances and has the bulging photo albums to prove it. Whatever the activity, she has a simple philosophy. “I love having fun.”

“She’s not very socially experienced,” her mother said. The stares and confusion Dawn finds when she attends a dorm party are not that unusual though still unpleasant. “There’s really nothing Notre Dame can throw at her that she hasn’t already been through,” her mother said.

Her family was warned before she was five years old that Dawn would have a bleak future. “We were always told she’d never have a real life,” Mrs. Parkot said. Doctors advised the family to institutionalize Dawn when she was still a child. The Parkots refused. “If we had gone that route, she wouldn’t be who she is now,” her mother boasts.