Before Valentine’s Day 2011, Rhett Unbehagen did not consider himself to be a person with a disability.
But while running on his high school campus that day, the University of Mississippi student experienced a 70 percent loss in his lung capacity. Barely breathing and covered with hives, he was rushed to the emergency room at Highland Community Hospital in Picayune.
After treatment of his condition, Unbehagen was diagnosed with exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Before then, fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases existed and the condition wasn’t considered fatal.
“I now realize that I had been disabled ever since I was originally diagnosed,” said the junior investment banking major from Carriere. “Two months later, I discovered I also have hypohydrosis (meaning he doesn’t sweat) and dermagraphia (a painful skin irritation).”
While Unbehagen’s particular disabilities are rare, he is far from alone. Of the more than 21,000 students enrolled at UM last spring, an estimated 1,130 had registered disabilities that had to be accommodated in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The vast majority have what we call ‘invisible disabilities,'” said Stacey Reycraft, director of Student Disability Services. “These include things like chronic illness, learning disabilities, psychiatric disorders and traumatic brain injuries.
“Our office helps with classroom accommodations, such as assisting with testing, lecture acquisition and attendance difficulties.”
Unbehagen said he was somewhat depressed following his attacks. Once he decided to embrace the necessary lifestyle adjustments caused by his medical conditions, things quickly began to improve for him.
“I decided that I needed a medical service dog to help me keep all my medications, such as epinephrine, close,” he said. “Before coming to Ole Miss, I had never seen anyone with a service dog.”
Through social media, Unbehagen contacted other owners of medical service dogs and began searching for his own canine companion. His search came to an end March 28 when he obtained a newborn Great Dane puppy, whom he has given the name “Scout.”
After undergoing training together, the pair has been inseparable.
Service animals, such as dogs or miniature horses, are considered to be equipment – much like a wheelchair or crutches – and are permitted to accompany their owners wherever they might go, Reycraft said. Emotional support animals, including cats and birds, are restricted to residential areas and not allowed in classrooms, food service areas and elsewhere.
“Requests for emotional support animals have to be approved in our office before they can stay in residence halls,” she said.
Reycraft and her staff regularly listen and respond to the concerns of students such as Unbehagen.
“Right now, we have appointments to see students scheduled through mid-September,” Reycraft said. “Our office has ordered an online management system which will allow us to serve these students more efficiently, improve communication and the registration process.
“The system has to be customized and we all have to learn it, so it won’t be operational before early 2018.”
Wheelchair ramps, handicapped parking spaces, braille buttons on mechanical equipment, including elevators, and handrails on stairs and in restrooms are among the adaptations that have been made campuswide.
“The University of Mississippi is definitely ‘disabled friendly,'” said Denny Buchannon, project engineer in the Department of Facilities Management. “We aim to be fully compliant. Due to the age of the campus and some of the buildings, it is an ongoing process.”
Scout is able to keep Unbehagen’s medications at the proper temperature constantly in a vest the dog wears. Impossible to go unnoticed, the dog draws others to Unbehagen and generates positive discussions.
Such ongoing dialogue about disabilities is useful, Reycraft said.
“The biggest struggle people with disabilities face are the attitudinal barriers most people without disabilities have,” she said. “Often, students express their frustrations at being an invisible minority who are not always understood or accepted by the majority.”
For that reason and others, the Office of Student Disability Services seeks to promote awareness on campus. During Disability History Month each April, a panel discussion is scheduled for disabled students to share their experiences with the public.
“This is helpful, but we need more,” Reycraft said. “It would be most helpful if more disabled faculty and staff on campus would join in these discussions as well.”
Other than having his lovable dog with him constantly, Unbehagen said he and other disabled students live much like every other UM student.
“I’m basically just like everyone else,” he said.
Reycraft said she remains hopeful that attitudinal barriers will eventually be erased.
“Twenty years ago, students with disabilities rarely made it to college campuses,” she said. “As more disabled young people attend institutions of higher learning, the laws have changed to require facilities, equipment and programs to meet their special needs.
“Cultural shifts have been known to take decades and even centuries. Hopefully, people’s thinking about people with disabilities will continue to evolve.”
By Edwin Smith
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