Students speak out about disabilities and awareness

By Megan Braxmaier | 11/4/12 5:05pm

Students and faculty met in the Pere Marquette room in Kirkhof on Tuesday to participate in a Q&A with four Grand Valley State University students who identify and live with a disability.

The Disability Support Resources office at GVSU reached out through a network of advisors to invite the students to provide a better insight about what it is like to live with a disability.

The students, Ashley Maloff, who lives with a chronic health condition; Derek Verbruggen, who lives with dyslexia; Juanita Lillie, who has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease and Molly Arnold, who is deaf, answered questions about their experiences inside and outside of the classroom.

Maloff, who is a first year graduate student at GVSU after studying at MSU, said she was diagnosed with her health condition when she was a junior in high school, and finds it most frustrating to explain her condition when she is still learning more about it herself. She knew she always wanted to become a teacher, and after she was diagnosed, she came to the conclusion that she wanted to be a special needs teacher and go into student affairs. Because of her disability, Maloff has been told that she should change her major and that obtaining her degree would be difficult, advice that she refused to follow.

“You can’t just tell a student to change their major because of a disability.” Maloff said.

Verbruggen, who was diagnosed his freshman year of high school, said there were many resources available to him to allow him to learn at the pace that was right for his level of learning. Due to his dyslexia, he finds that he is more of an auditory learner, and has access to audio versions of his textbooks, so he can listen to the chapters at a faster pace than if he were to read them.

Lillie has been living with RP ever since she was a young girl. She was initially nervous upon coming to GVSU because she didn’t know if she would have the proper accommodations available to her, but she said her experience at GVSU has been great and that the professors were very accommodating as long as you are willing to take the initiative and have good communication with them.

Disability Student Resources helped provide Arnold with accommodations to help with her hearing impairment in class. DSR can provide professors who share videos in class the option of captions with the videos for Arnold and other students with hearing impairments to read. Arnold is also a member of the American Sign language and culture club and had become fluent enough in ASL by the end of her freshman year to use an interpreter in her classes.

“It’s about advocating for yourself,” Lillie said. “I talk to my teachers before the semester to let them know about my disability so that we are both better prepared.”

According to their website and brochure, the mission statement of DSR is “to provide support services and accommodations that enhance the environment for persons with disabilities and to help educate the university community on disability issues.”

The DSR provides many services and accommodations to students who are living with all types of disabilities. They provide academic advising where students are assisted with course scheduling, provide alternate textbook formats and assistive technology, options for alternative test-taking, note-taking assistance, resource agents, tutoring, transportation services and provide documentation for students to disclose to their professors that lists the accommodations necessary for the students to learn.

Students can contact DSR at or visit their website at for more information.

Verbruggen said that if any students needed or wanted advice from a GVSU Student, or just someone to talk to, that he would even offer his own contact information.

“It’s better when you can talk to someone who is actually going through it themselves,” Verbruggen said.

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