When Kate Cronkite, 58, discovered she had a learning disability four years ago, she had no idea it was the cause of her 20-year history of depression.
Cronkite, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in 2004 and major depression in her early 30s. Life experiences like marriage, motherhood and a painful divorce led her to battle depression, a condition she has successfully dealt with in her adult life.
"If you have an invisible disability, you are more likely to have been undiagnosed for a long time," says Cronkite. "You internalize all the labels people put on you to explain to themselves why you are different and you grow up believing those things. When you get to my age when most people are retiring instead of pursuing a degree, it's hard. Nobody ever taught me how to handle depression."
Cronkite has had to face the stigma of accepting her disability and seeking help to manage her illness from the university's Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), a unit of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
"People don't see my disability, so they don't know I need help" says Cronkite. "They see that I'm dropping my books all over the place and I can't seem to get them picked up."
A goal of Cronkite's is to make it easier for students with disabilities to access help through organizations like the Allies for Better Leadership and Empowerment (ABLE), an official student organization that provides leadership and social opportunity for students interested in issues of disability. Cronkite believes that one has to recognize the disability and ask for help with issues such as cognitive ability, motivation and therapy.
"When you have spent a lifetime not knowing how to get help, even when you get the condition under control, you still don't have the skills that everybody else learned their whole life." says Cronkite. "I'd like to see more outreach and recognition of what students are dealing with at UT."
ABLE was started in spring 2007 by 10 students who faced varying disabilities. Through active discussions, the founders sought common ground between visible and invisible disabilities that some students face. The organization was also created to foster relationships between students with disabilities and spread the knowledge gained to the rest of the university community.
"ABLE offers leadership opportunities to students with disabilities," says Alyssa Griffith, co-secretary of ABLE and a linguistics junior. "ABLE is not just a support group where you go and complain about your problems, it's a place where you are held accountable for making changes in your life. We really strive to promote self advocacy."
ABLE is a small organization with only six to eight members who have disabilities ranging from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, blindness, fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder and visual impairment.
The organization promotes itself through the SSD and another student organization called Stigma Associated with Invisible Disabilities (SADA). On Sept. 5, SSD, SADA, ABLE and Student Government's Students with Disabilities Agency hosted an ice cream social to connect students and discuss dating with disabilities.
"Disabled students need to understand each other better," says Cronkite. "It really bugged me at the kickoff social that students were separated according to their disabilities. We need to explain to ourselves our needs and I believe ABLE is trying to do that."
ABLE events try to promote social interaction and self-directed developments of students with disabilities by building up on individual capacities and providing leadership opportunities at the university.
"Society holds that people with disabilities must be considered as recipients of good will, care and protection and most often lack the capacity to make their own choices,'" says Sathiya Ramdoss, a graduate student studying special education and a member of ABLE. "ABLE is the premier organization for students with disabilities, organized by students with disabilities, for students with disabilities."
ABLE meetings are held every first Tuesday of the month in the Student Services Building Dean of Students Office at 6 p.m. For more information, contact Alyssa Griffith at firstname.lastname@example.org.