In honor of Disability Awareness Month, we are spotlighting several students and alums who are making the campus—and the community—more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities. Read on to learn more about their good work here on the Forty Acres and beyond. And be sure to visit this website for a full list of awareness events sponsored by Services for Students with Disabilities.
Business and Education Senior
Shalom Hernandez, a business and education senior, aims to empower people with disabilities to push past their barriers—surprising themselves and others in the process. Diagnosed at an early age with Arthrogryposis (a condition that limits lower-body mobility due to due to joint contractures) she understands the importance of self-advocacy and encourages others to embrace her personal motto: “Living without boundaries.”
Burnt Orange Bound… Hernandez is proud of her accomplishments at UT Austin—and the many challenges she pushed through. “Coming to UT was a very hard transition. I had to move from El Paso to a new city and my mom was very scared for me. She’d say, ‘You don’t have to go that far to be independent.’ Even though she didn’t want to be discouraging, that made it harder to leave.”
Speaking out… During her first week at UT Austin, Hernandez’s biggest fear came true when she was placed in a dorm without a private bathroom and adequate space for her equipment. With guidance from her mentor from the Subiendo Academy, she immediately sought help from Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). “I told them that if I didn’t have accommodations, I would have to leave UT. They immediately took care of the situation and moved me that week. Since then I’ve been living in San Jacinto and have all the space I require.”
The power of mentors…Hernandez is especially thankful for her mentors in the Subiendo Academy, a one-week summer leadership program within the McCombs School of Business. Throughout her journey at UT Austin, they have helped her every step of the way. “My mentor, Leticia Acosta, has been my go-to person whenever I need guidance. She helped me through the process of contacting SSD and has always been there to give me the adult perspective I need.”
Taking the world by storm…An independent spirit, Hernandez decided to take her undergraduate journey a step further and study abroad for six weeks in Barcelona, where she interned at a nonprofit that provides educational opportunities to underserved children and teens. “While in Spain, I learned that I’m really good at adapting to change. The physical barriers were challenging, but I can always find ways to maneuver around them. There’s always opportunities out there. You just have to communicate with people and take the initiative.”
Paying it forward…Inspired by her mentors, Hernandez has taken on several leadership roles to motivate students with disabilities to advocate for themselves and travel the world. “Now that I’ve learned about all of these communities here at UT, I can empower more people to turn their disabilities into strengths. No matter what stereotypes people hold against you, just know that you can prevail.”
Life after UT Austin…Hernandez discovered her calling during her internship nonprofit that provides orthopedic surgeries to children in El Paso of Mexican citizenship. She’ll never forget the moment when she raised enough money to provide a young girl with a walker. After graduation, she plans to attend graduate school and later start up a nonprofit that will provide children in developing countries with life-changing medical supplies. “Even though I grew up in a low-income family, I had the resources to physically progress to where I am now. It breaks my heart that kids with disabilities in other countries don’t have the same level of opportunities.
Dancing the night away…When Hernandez isn’t immersed in her studies or advocacy work, she can often be found at a local coffee houses or dancing the night away at Dance Across Texas. “It’s fun to get out, discover new restaurants and learn about other cultures. I love living here and feel at home in Austin.”
Hernandez’s activities and programs include: President, Subiendo Academy, Longhorn Chapter, 2016-17; Vice President, Hispanic Student Association, 2016-17; Education Intern, Fundacio Pare Manel, 2017; Volunteer, Borderless Giving Program, 2015
Graduate Student, School of Social Work
After wrapping up her master’s degree last summer, Marisa Ortega returned to her hometown of Dallas to pursue a rewarding career in social work with a focus on people with disabilities. She understands the importance of this work because she, too, has benefited from supportive people and resources while navigating school and life with a visual impairment.
Burnt orange bound…Since she was a young girl, Marisa Ortega always dreamed of becoming a Longhorn. She didn’t realize that dream could be a reality until she met with her community college adviser. “When she asked me about my dream school, I told her that I would love more than anything to go to UT. I’ll never my excitement when she told me I had enough transferable credits to get into the school that I always considered to be the Ivy League of Texas.”
Finding her path…When Ortega came to UT Austin, she knew she wanted to pursue a career path that would allow her to help people. Unsure of which path to take, she decided to major in education and later found that her passion for teaching just wasn’t there. When an advisor told her to explore some options in the field of social work, it all started to come together. “I didn’t know anything about social work, but when I looked into it I realized that’s exactly where I needed to be.”
Defying limitations…Not only did Ortega surpass her expectations by becoming a Longhorn, she also accomplished the unthinkable: studying abroad. “I’m legally blind, so I never would have imagined studying abroad in London. Sometimes we put limitations on ourselves and need to break past our self-imposed barriers and take risks. That’s the only way we can see what we’re truly capable of. Society is already putting limitations on underrepresented groups, so why put more limitations on ourselves?”
Educating future advocates…She hopes she can spread the wisdom she learned from her support network in the School of Social Work and Service for Students with Disabilities. “I learned more about advocating for myself in regard to my disability. I learned that people don’t see disability as a component of diversity, and that this is a marginalized population many people aren’t aware of. I want to keep working toward spreading awareness and helping this group find equality.”
Erasing the stigma…Inspired by her experiences abroad, Ortega has been encouraging more students with disabilities to consider traveling the world in study abroad information sessions. She also wants to help erase the stigma attached to disability. “I want to take away the sympathy component and help people see that we all use tools to do certain things. Some of us may need a GPS system to get around town or a calculator to do the bills. And we all learn differently. It’s not about smart or dumb; it’s about finding a way of learning that works for you. “The beauty of life is that we’re all different. What would the world be like if we’re all the same?
A surprising journey… A first-generation college graduate, Ortega initially aspired to attain her associate’s degree and find a job to pay the bills. Looking back at her collegiate journey, she’s amazed at how far she’s surpassed her expectations. Now as she’s about to receive her master’s degree from the School of Social Work, she’s excited to see what the future might hold.
Alumnus (B.A., Greek and Latin, ‘98/J.D., Law ’04)
A proud Longhorn, Sean Pevsner is a partner in his own firm, Whitburn & Pevsner, PLLC, where he has developed a vibrant special education practice. A passionate advocate for equal rights, Pevsner knew from a very young age that he wanted to help people with disabilities access education, community services and public accommodations. Now he is fulfilling his alma mater’s mission: “What Starts Here Changes the World.”
Ahead of the class…Born with severe cerebral palsy, Pevsner is a quadriplegic who moves his head to operate his motorized wheelchair. Despite his challenges early into his academic career, he proved doctors and teachers wrong by surpassing his peers in mainstream classes and gradating in the top 20 percent of his high school class. By the time he entered law school, he had a specific goal in mind. “I want to show society what a person with a disability can bring to the legal arena.”
Navigating college life…In college, one of Pevsner’s biggest challenges was traversing the massive campus in a non-motorized wheelchair. With help from Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), he was able to get a helping hand from assistants as well as classroom accommodations. “SSD proctored all of my undergraduate exams and issued accommodation letters both for undergraduate and law school.”
Making a lasting impact…Among Pevsner’s many accomplishments at UT Austin, he founded Groups United Against Rights Discrimination, a student organization that worked to make the campus more accessible to people with disabilities. His favorite UT Austin memory was spearheading the Disability Awareness Rights Rally during the DDCE’s annual Heman Sweatt Symposium. “When I first got to UT, I had to educate people. I found a lot of them didn’t know how to deal with a person with a severe disability.”
A word of advice… “You should never assume that people know how to accommodate you, even people who are supposed to know how to accommodate people with disabilities. I learned that you must be vigilant in self-advocating in all circumstances.”
Proud to be a Longhorn…Now residing in Arlington, Texas, Pevsner is happy with the path he has chosen. He attributes much of his success to his friends, professors and fellow advocates who helped him achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer. “I love UT and am grateful for what the university did for me while I was a student.”
International Relations and Global Studies/Linguistics Senior
Justin Roberson plans on pursuing a challenging career in international law. An aspiring polyglot, Roberson’s favorite hobby is studying languages and culture. On any given weekend, he’s watching movies in Mandarin or conjugating verbs in Spanish. We sat down with him to learn more about his experiences here on the Forty Acres, his love for international travel, and what’s next after graduation.
Going global… Ready to wrap up his senior year and get started in his career, Roberson is considering working for a non-governmental organization with a focus on economic development in countries across the globe. “I love learning about the global culture and how everything interconnects politically. We’re more connected now than we ever have been—and it’s important that everyone understands this.”
Getting a second opinion… Roberson knows the journey to law school won’t be an easy one, but he’s determined to overcome any hurdle that comes his way. Early into his freshman year, he decided to confront one particular obstacle that had been plaguing him since high school. Unable to remain awake and fully alert during class and critical study sessions, he decided to see a doctor and get a second opinion. He was soon diagnosed with narcolepsy, a neurological disorder that derails the brain’s sleep-wake cycle. “After the diagnosis, I struggled with it for a while. But then I realized I can’t take care of the problem with just will power. I can’t will my brain to properly function.”
Time on his side…With assistance from Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), Roberson is learning how to navigate school and life with a chronic condition that often causes episodes of sleepiness during the daytime. The biggest challenge, he says, is finding time in between sporadic sleep episodes to meet deadlines and prepare for tests. “The narcoleptic brain goes on and off like a light switch. So it takes me twice as long to finish assignments and study for tests. I put a lot of effort into my schoolwork, but it’s so worth it. I have to climb a mountain, and the reward is at the top.”
A way with words… Roberson is looking forward to taking one less class this semester—lightening his load from the usual 15 hours to 12. The extra free time will allow him to do what he loves most: learn new languages. Currently he is working on his fluency in Spanish, German and Mandarin.
Diversifying study abroad…This semester, Roberson will also continue his job at the university’s International Office, where he’s leading a diversity campaign for study abroad. As a peer advisor, he also works alongside students with disabilities, encouraging them to push past their limitations and travel the world. He is also working to build a database designed to assist students with disabilities who are interested in studying overseas. After a life-changing trip to Shanghai, he wants more students to benefit from similar experiences. “I proved to myself that I could study abroad with a disability—and now I’m showing students they can do this too.”
Life after UT Austin…After graduation, Roberson plans on taking the summer off for medical treatment to strengthen his brain’s sleep/wake cycle after living under the constraints of a structured schedule for several years. Although it will take him a little longer to get there, he’s more than ready to get started in law school and has already set his sights on more world travels. Next on his list are Korea, Vietnam, Spain and Colombia.
A word of advice… “Trust your body. Back when I was first experiencing symptoms, so many people told me that there was nothing wrong. But yet I knew something was really off when I woke up feeling sore from not having REM sleep. When you’re having pains and something isn’t right, listen to your body and find out why.”
Roberson’s programs and activities include: Peer adviser, International Office; CET Study Abroad in Shanghai, Summer 2016
Communications Studies Junior
When Steven Santoyo came to UT Austin, he immediately immersed himself in a number of programs and activities to discover his passions. After joining DiscoverLaw.orgPLUS, a five-week summer program that prepares undergraduates for law school and beyond, he realized that becoming a lawyer would allow him to pursue a rewarding career in advocacy.
Spreading awareness…Santoyo’s passion for advocacy stems from personal experience. Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 13, he has spent most of his life learning how to advocate for himself and others. As president and founder of Type Texas, UT’s first chapter of the College Diabetes Network (CDN), he’s spreading awareness about the two different types of diabetes and supporting students with diabetes in need of friends, mentors and resources.
Navigating the ups and downs…In addition to connecting students with resources, the CDN chapter also provides a sense of belonging for those who often feel like outsiders on a large college campus. “We’re a resource group and community. We talk through the highs and lows of our lives each week—which can be a funny pun in the world of diabetes. Studies have shown that the daily medical routine can lead to diabetes burnout, so it’s important to have a lot of support.”
Creating communities…While assisting students and meetings and awareness events, Santoyo always thinks of his close friend from high school, Kayce, who passed away from complications with Type-1 Diabetes during her freshman year at the University of Missouri. To honor her memory, he made it his mission to provide a support network for students living with diabetes. “I realized I’m here on this earth to help people and to be a resource. The aim of Type Texas is to connect, inspire, and empower individuals living with diabetes. ”
Following his heart…After graduation, Santoyo will continue to honor his friend throughout his legal career. Only time will tell where he’ll attend law school. He knows, however, with absolute certainty he’ll be following his heart. “Not a day goes by where I don’t think about Kayce. I’m not sure how I’m going to weave diabetes and health care advocacy into my legal career, but I do know that this work is at my heart’s core.”
Getting real…A first-generation college student, prior to his participation in Discover Law this summer, Santoyo wasn’t entirely convinced that a career in law was even possible. His dream of becoming a lawyer quickly turned into a reality when he attended a student panel the program hosted. “I remember the panel was called ‘The Real Talk’ and it featured three different students currently at UT Law. They shared stories about their disadvantaged backgrounds, gave us tips as students of color, and really helped me see that law school was within reach.”
Proud to be a Longhorn…A natural extrovert, Santoyo is in his element when he’s leading campus tours as a student ambassador for The Guides of Texas, showing off his beloved campus to the public. On any given day, he can often be spotted on campus wearing burnt orange attire embossed with Longhorn insignia. “There’s a lot of great schools in this country, but there’s only one UT Austin. I love that our core purpose is to transform lives for the benefit of society. This university has changed my life.”
A word of advice… “When you get to UT, don’t be afraid to communicate. There are so many resources awaiting you, so it’s up to you to make that first ask. When you do, it will change your whole experience here. Also, do not be afraid to fail. You learn your best lessons from your worst failures.”
Santoyo’s programs and activities include: Type Texas: The College Diabetes Network Chapter at UT Austin; Discover Law, Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence; Pre-Grad Intern, Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program; Senior Fellow, Moody College of Communication; Resident Assistant, Division of Housing and Food Services; Tour Guide, Office of Admissions; Communication Council; UT Student Government
Educational Psychology Graduate Student
As an undergraduate, Eden Stone spent many sleepless nights getting through her homework assignments and prepping for tests. Yet for reasons unknown, she was barely staying afloat. Frustrated with her lack of focus, she sought medical attention and was soon diagnosed with ADHD.
We caught up with her to learn more about her experiences navigating college life with an invisible disability, and how she’s helping students advocate for themselves and others.
Putting the “A” in accommodations…After getting her diagnosis, Stone secured accommodations at the University of Alabama to stay on top of her studies. She later transferred to UT Austin and immediately contacted Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to get the resources she needed to keep up the momentum. “After getting accommodations, my grades turned around drastically. I was making a 4.0—and before then I was not even close to that path. It made me realize that I finally had equal opportunity to excel.”
The power of self-advocacy…One of the biggest challenges student have to overcome, she says, is talking to professors about accommodations. “It can be overwhelming talking to professors—and even more nerve-wracking talking to them about and adjustment you need in class. As a student, I can tell them that I know how that feels and that we’re here to help if you’re not being accommodated.”
Dispelling misconceptions…Another challenge, Stone notes, is when students are diagnosed with stigmatized disabilities that many people don’t understand. “A lot of students don’t realize that SSD keeps the diagnosis confidential, which can be a relief when professors don’t consider your disability to be real. Now in this time of advanced technology, people tend to think that ADHD is a term for lazy people who are constantly on their phones. When I tell people about my disability, I don’t know how they’re going to respond or what they’re really thinking.”
Finding her career path…For several years, Stone worked as student intern at the SSD office and is now taking on new responsibilities as a student services coordinator. “I’m so grateful to be in this role, especially when students first learn about the accommodations they never knew existed. It feels good because I’ve been there, and I know exactly how they’re feeling. It adds a different layer to my desire to work with students and see them grow.”
On the right path…After completing her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2016, Stone chose to pursue her graduate studies in a field that would allow her to find meaningful work in counseling. “Now that I’m in this graduate program, I know I’m in the right place. The people in my cohort are very passionate about helping others and are very interested in learning about people with disabilities, especially the language. For example, they’ve learned that some terms like ‘wheelchair-bound’ can be offensive.”
A word of advice… “One thing I wish I knew earlier is to focus more on strengths rather than weaknesses. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Once you capitalize on your strengths, you’ll feel more in control.”