Pennsylvania State University

Posted on January 1, 2010

Disability Awareness Month: “Diversability” Events

Penn State has been a recipient of scholarship grants from the Newcombe Foundation since 1982.The foundation funds annual University-wide scholarships for students with disabilities that are available at all twenty-four campuses. In addition, the Newcombe Foundation and Penn State have created four Newcombe Endowments in collaboration with donors and, most recently, with Penn State’s Board of Trustees. These scholarships and endowments provide support in the form of partial tuition scholarships or as assistance with special expenses, internships, adapted equipment, and housing needs. Since 1982, approximately $800,000 has been granted to Penn State from the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation for these scholarships and endowments. The Newcombe Foundation celebrates Penn State’s commitment to providing access to quality higher education for students with disabilities.

Penn State, founded in 1855 as a publicly supported agricultural college, is now the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant institution. It ranks as one of four “state-related” universities (along with the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University, and Lincoln University), institutions that are not state-owned and operated, but that has the character of public universities. Penn State has twenty-four campuses across Pennsylvania. While some of these locations, such as the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, have specialized academic roles, they all adhere to a common overall mission and set of core values and strategic goals.

Penn State, through its centralized Office for Disability Services, has a rich forty-year history of providing services to students, faculty, and staff with disabilities and continues to strive toward its goal of being an inclusive institution through diversity strategic planning. Additionally, Penn State provides professional support and services for students with disabilities at all of its twenty-four Penn State campuses.

To enhance the services, programs, and activities already provided to individuals with disabilities, a University-wide Disability Advisory Group was created in 2007 at the suggestion of faculty from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Formed through the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, the mission of the group is to “assist in supporting the full inclusion and participation of faculty, staff, and students with disabilities within the University community.” The Disability Advisory Group has accomplished a great deal in increasing awareness of disability issues within the larger population and meeting the goals initially set forth by the group. In addition, due to the efforts of the group, the University’s President’s Council officially declared October as Disability Awareness Month.

Pennsylvania State University
Access ramp to the Electrical Engineering Building on the University Park Campus of Penn State

A variety of events planned by the Disability Advisory Group highlighted the University’s first annual Disability Awareness Month in October 2009. The theme of the month was “Diversability,” which emphasized the varying abilities and talents of people with disabilities. The intent of the Diversability events was to promote an atmosphere among all populations at Penn State that encouraged discussion and exploration of issues related to disabilities. Events focused on questions about accessibility, equality, and inclusion. Throughout the month, several speakers were invited to present information on various topics. The intent was to inspire, motivate, explore, and discuss a variety of disability topics such as blindness, Web accessibility, physical disabilities, hearing impairments, psychological disorders, veterans with disabilities, and recreation. In addition to speakers and discussions, two movies, The Music Within and Murderball, were shown to students, faculty, and staff; discussion followed each showing. Two community readings and discussion of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon were conducted at the local library and at a local cafĂ©. This unforgettable story of a young man with Asperger’s syndrome inspired appreciation for individuals with cognitive disabilities. Also, the Ability Athletics Basketball Practice invited students, faculty, and staff to join them every Wednesday night for a game of wheelchair basketball. Those who participated enjoyed a unique experience that changed their thinking about sports and its players.

Overall, the events were very well attended by students, faculty, and staff. The reviews of the events were awe-inspiring and showed that individuals without disabilities were truly touched and changed by the events. One student who participated in the wheelchair basketball practice stated, “Wheelchair basketball has taught me about how challenging a game of basketball can be and how people with and without disabilities can work and play together equally.” Another student, after attending the movie Murderball, commented, “It showed me that being disabled doesn’t prevent you from doing the things that able-bodied people can do. It showed me how able, dis-abled people can be.” A faculty member commented following one inspirational speech, “It reinforced the thought that when you believe in yourself, good things are possible; the power of positive thinking… Great reminder!” Another staff member said, “Just got re-motivated!” after attending the same event. A student stated, “Excellent; actually gave me chills!” after attending this speech as well. Following the event called “Discussing Disability,” a staff member stated, “This session was so inspiring. I met three people with disabilities. They are such lovely people…I will treasure what I have, and if possible, I want to learn more about people with disabilities.” And, from one student’s evaluation form: “I understand now that some words that I use are negative phrases and might be hurtful…I’m not going to say them again.”

For a more in-depth description of the events, please visit the Diversability Web site at:

Penn State plans to continue disability awareness events annually during the month of October as part of Penn State’s recognition of Disability Awareness Month. Future plans include expanding the scope of the events and to include programs at all Penn State campuses throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Utilizing the evaluations provided by participants from last year’s event, plans have already begun for another exciting month of Diversability events in October 2010.