Lending a helping hand

Laura Neff, a Youngstown State University student, was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in the second grade and with hereditary spastic paraplegia just after high school.

Neff’s disorders combine a learning disability with a degenerative muscle condition.

“Walking around on campus is definitely a workout for me,” she said. “With leg braces, I still need to take my time and go at a pace that is comfortable for me.”

An American FactFinder report in 2010 indicated that 16.6 percent of Americans aged 21 to 64 live with a disability. That’s up 0.1 percent from a 2005 FactFinder report.

“ADD is having poor concentration skills,” Neff said. “This limits me because I had trouble paying attention in school.”

Neff is registered with the Center for Student Progress Disability Services, which allows her to take tests in a quiet environment and with more time to do so.

Neff is in the early stages of HSP, which will ultimately leave her in need of a cane, walker or wheelchair. Neff wears leg braces to classes to help combat leg weakness, but she said she tries to look on the bright side.

“It was explained to me that I will have a normal life expectancy and that it will never affect my brain function,” she said.

YSU’s CSP Disability Services provides support for Neff and other students who require assistance in their college careers.

Of the 750 students registered with the CSP Disability Services, 500 are active. One such student is Jake Myers, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and HSP as a 1-year-old.

Myers takes it all in stride, even though portions of the campus are hard for him to navigate.

“There are some physical barriers on campus, like handicap switches that don’t work and the fact that there is usually only one handicap entrance, and it is always on the far side of the building,” he said. “You do what you got to do.”

The CSP Disability Services pays students like Carly Ondash to take notes for others needing help.

“I want to be kind to everyone and treat them the way I want to be treated,” she said. “It is the golden rule, and it is a great way to live life.”

Ondash says she views the opportunity of helping a handicapped student as an educational one.

“The best part of helping someone with a handicap is that I learn a lot about myself and the world,” she said. “It teaches you to be understanding and see things from a different perspective.”

Should the opportunity to help someone with a handicap arise in the future, Ondash would answer the call.

“I enjoy helping others,” she said. “It is very fulfilling to give your time to someone who needs help. It makes a difference in someone’s life; it makes a difference in the world. I believe it is important to have compassion for others. And we should care about each other.”

Gina McGranahan, CSP Disability Services staff member, said she feels gratified to help those with handicaps, especially at one time every semester.

“I get my reward when the graduation list comes out and I get to see who is registered here and who graduated, and I know that hopefully we had some hand in them becoming successful in their years at YSU,” she said.

Despite their handicaps, students like Neff try to make the most of their college experiences.

Neff is a member of the Color Guard on the YSU Marching Pride and remains determined all the way.

“I may have a physical handicap, but I don’t let it stop me from doing the things I love,” she said. “Words can’t even explain what an amazing feeling it is to be out on the field performing in front of the crowd at Stambaugh Stadium.”

Neff is double-majoring in special education and early childhood and has high aspirations.

“My main goal is to become a preschool or kindergarten teacher and work with special needs children or become and intervention specialist,” she said.

Neff has advice for those in similar situations.

“Even if you have a handicap, don’t let it or people hold you back and stop you from succeeding and doing what you love in life,” she said.

“Always strive for your dreams and don’t let anything get in the way of making those dreams come true.”