As the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is fast approaching, Sheridan students and staff members affiliated with FACE IT are calling for more inclusivity and awareness in the community.
FACE IT — an acronym for “Friends Accepting Challenges and Endeavouring to Improve Themselves” — is a weekly social club catered to students who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. It was created in 2009 with the help of Sheridan’s Counselling Services. Today the club is a collaboration of Counselling, Accessible Learning, Centre for Equity and Inclusion and the Sheridan Student Union.
“I consider autism to be ‘awe’-tism,” said Matteo Esposito, a member of the club and a technical production for the performing arts student at Sheridan College. “It really is amazing that the brain can function differently. I’m happy with people who are understanding [about this]. But for those who don’t understand, it’s sad.”
“Just because I have a different way of processing information doesn’t mean I’m disabled. It just means I got to do things the way I do them in order to get results done,” said Greg Lowenthal, a journalism alumni from Sheridan College who continues to attend the weekly meetings.
As a result, they are thankful for a day like IDPD, as it brings awareness to stigma associated with disabilities.
“It is not just a day for celebrating those who have disabilities but for those who are supportive of the achievements these people have made,” Lowenthal said. “It also means recognition for what can be done despite limitations experienced by those labelled as ‘disabled.’
For Cynthia, another FACE IT member who is in her second year of the accounting program at Sheridan, IDPD helps people realize that people with disabilities are not always dependent.
“They’re not completely helpless. They can be independent,” she said.
Janice Galloway, learning strategist of Accessible Learning and co-facilitator of FACE IT, believes this day is also important in raising awareness, particularly when it comes to autism, a disability that isn’t visible.
“The saying is ‘when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’ Because it’s a spectrum and everybody is unique,” Galloway said.
“It’s the same as any human being,” she said. “Nobody is alike. They’re not all one way.”
But “the great thing about FACE IT,” she says, “ is that [students] kind of take back that stigma, and saying ‘This is our club, this is who we are. Yes I’m a person with autism, please come ask me questions. I want to teach you about what it’s like to be me and have autism and how we can create a better, inclusive community and help with those misunderstandings and miscommunications.’ Because it’s a communication disorder as well.”
In addition to reducing stigma, FACE IT helps students with certain skills, according to Suzyo Bavi, co-facilitator of FACE IT and a mental health counsellor at Sheridan. Relationships, self-advocacy, cooking and meal prepping are just some of the many topics that are requested by students in the club, he says.
“This is very student centered,” Bavi said. “I started learning more even from the students themselves.”
For FACE IT president Jordana Gonsalves, leadership skills are greatly provided in the club.
“At FACE IT we’re very open with whoever wants to practice leadership skills,”Goncalves said. “Leadership is a huge part of life because you have to stand up for yourself. Leadership skills teach you to stand up for yourself. When you get a job you need to learn to ask for help.”
Sarah Shahid, an executive member of FACE IT, and a student in the child and youth care program at Sheridan, found the club to be resourceful.
“When I walked into FACE IT [in April 2019], it was kind of a fluke and it was close to the end of the semester. I just found out about it. I’ve just been diagnosed. A lot of the behaviour traits were so new to me and the obstacles and the challenges that I was facing were very new,” she said. “Having these positive connections really helped me facilitate the change that I wanted to see.”
Prior to COVID-19, FACE IT used to meet in person in their respective campuses every Thursday from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Now, however, FACE IT clubs from all campuses have united for virtual meetings at the same time.
Bavi says that while it’s great that there is cross-campus collaboration, virtual meetings have been an adjustment.
“As you know people are socially anxious about life right now,” he said. “The best way to deal with that is to be able to confront them. You need that space that makes you feel at ease so you can challenge it. But when you’re in your home, you’re isolated, it sort of fuels these anxieties, and for individuals who are on the spectrum, it can be much more challenging for them.”
FACE IT plans to celebrate IDPD on Thursday by sharing written and visual art amongst each other about what this day means to them. They will also be ending the term with a virtual cooking class on Dec. 10.
In the meantime, what can students with disabilities at Sheridan College do to seek help, should they desire to?
“I would say go to a counsellor and talk to them and tell them what you’re looking for. The counsellors really know what to look for at Sheridan,” Goncalves said. “One of my professors directed me to counselling and that was the best thing they’ve done for me.”
Galloway also recommends visiting the Accessible Learning services at Sheridan college.
“Any student who has a documented disability can register with our department and seek accommodations within their program,” she said.
Both Galloway and Bavi are aware that changes in making Sheridan a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities is not something that can be done overnight.
“I think it’s a continuous process. If you know something, you know about a resource, you know people who are more educated about it,” Bavi said. “Let’s try to educate those who don’t know, let’s ask what we don’t know.”
“I think over the many years that I’ve been at Sheridan so far, I’ve seen a lot of that change happening,” Galloway said. “I just look forward to seeing more of that change and voices being heard that need to be heard and applied to our goals and how we want to be seen as an institution.”
Infographic by Danielle Ricci