UM students with disabilities succeed despite challenges

Zipping around campus in his power wheelchair, Roque V. Cespedes, a senior, has a goal and a gameplan.

University of Miami students such as Cespedes, 22, have taken on the challenges that face college students with disabilities – and won.

Cespedes has cerebral palsy, which is caused by damage to the motor control centers of the developing brain during pregnancy, birth or early childhood. But driven to succeed, Cespedes has overcome his mobility challenges and will be graduating in May with a double major in meteorology and applied mathematics.

“I feel wonderful. I can’t wait until I graduate and begin graduate school,” Cespedes said in an e-mail to The Miami Hurricane.

Cespedes has been accepted to the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) and plans to work on his graduate thesis with Brian Soden,an associate professor of marine and atmospheric science, studying how climate change and global warming might affect the weather of Florida and the Caribbean.

“I think Roque is a terrific student and am very excited about the work he will be doing as a graduate student in RSMAS,” Soden said.

Wheelchair rugby and sit-waterskiing are just a few of senior Lee Fredette’s favorite activities.

Injured at 19, Fredette, now 26, recalls that he was “all about sports” before his neck was broken while dirt-biking an allegedly “booby-trapped” trail through a neighborhood near his home.

After hitting a pile of leaves concealing a stack of bricks, he flew over the handlebars of his bike, breaking his neck.

After a 10-hour surgery and two years of physical therapy, Fredette began to play sports again – in his manual wheelchair.

“Through the sports, I met a lot of people in wheelchairs who were going through the same thing I was,” says Fredette, who now lives on campus with his service dog, Bailey, a golden retriever.

“Bailey makes it easier for me to travel around campus,” says Fredette. Bailey also runs with Fredette while he rides his hand-pedaled bike around campus for fun.

A psychology major, Fredette plans to either attend medical school to become a psychiatrist or do a clinical psychology program at UM after he graduates in December.

For Joanna Slochowski, a senior, quitting dance has never been an option – even after a massive stroke left her hemi-paralyzed.

After Slochowski, 25, finished her freshman year at UM with severe sinusitis, Slochowski checked into a hospital for a simple sinus-clearing surgery. Slochowski was revived four times after an anesthesiologist made an extubation mistake that caused fluid to enter her lungs, causing lung and heart damage in addition to the stroke.

After being told that she would never walk again, she began an intense physical and occupational therapy regimen, which she still continues today.

“I was very scared to go back to school,” remembers Slochowski.

Before her accident, Slochowski danced with a Jewish Community Center troupe, Hemshech, and traveled as far as Mexico, Brazil and Israel to perform.

As Slochowski gradually began to dance again, she also returned to classes at UM.

She will be graduating in May with a major in Judaic studies and minors in elementary education, psychology, and dance.

“Now that I’m taking UM dance classes, my recovery has been much better. I am regaining my balance, I’m looser, and it’s helped my body overall,” she said.

After graduation, Slochowski hopes to work at Miami Children’s Hospital, where she has volunteered.

For Cespedes, Fredette and Slochowski, success has been made easier with help from family, friends, and UM’s Office of Disability Services (ODS), which currently provides services for over 550 students who have registered on campus as having a disability. The ODS has assisted roughly 1600 currently registered students.

“It may be as simple as providing a space for a student to take an exam in a quiet location, all the way through having a guide or assistant work side-by-side with the student in a lab or on a field trip,” says Mykel Billups, assistant dean of Academic Support Services.

Advocating for students, arranging accessible housing and classrooms and providing scribes and note-takers are just a few of the services offered by the ODS.

March 11, 2009


Ashleigh Maynard

Contributing News Writer

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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.