Student With Disability Helps St. Francis College With ADA Accessibility

Tags: Currents Brooklyn, NY, Faith, Family, Inspiration, Media, Queens, NY

By Jessica Easthope

Jessica Huang’s odds have been stacked against her since the day she was born.

“It’s hard because I always have to find the balance of not being underestimated, but at the same time, those challenges are very real and will be with me forever,” Huang said.

Huang was born with cerebral palsy. Her parents didn’t know until she was 18 months old. But they never underestimated her.

She’s a first-generation Asian American. Education was always going to be a priority.

“College has been awesome,” Huang said. “As I get closer to the end, I’m like, am I going to be able to top this?”

St. Francis has a vertical campus, accessible by elevators that speak and equipped with single-use bathrooms, features that have made Huang’s life easier since the school’s move from Bay Ridge.

“The old building had all the basics, but the problem with the elevators was tiny. As soon as there were two people, my aide and I could not fit in the elevator,” Huang said. “Sometimes I was waiting like 15 minutes for a single elevator ride to get to class.”

St. Francis is looking ahead to a future with students with physical disabilities, and they’re asking Huang to help design it.

“Here at St. Francis College, we want to help shape the change that’s ahead of us,” said Tim Cecere, President of St. Francis College. “Giving access to folks with disabilities is part of how we’re helping shape that change.”

Cecere is new to the job, but he’s a veteran when it comes to advocating for those with disabilities.

“We are 100% compliant and wouldn’t be good Catholics if we did anything different rather than being exclusionary,” Cecere said. “It’s the Christianity and our faith background that compels us to act this way.”

As a former board member working in advertising, he’s found careers for St. Francis alumni with physical challenges for no reason other than they deserved it.

“It’s a tremendous talent pool that we weren’t tapping into that has specific special insights beyond what the rest of us have given what they’re confronted with in their life,” Cecere said.

Huang isn’t Catholic, but she knows the school’s Franciscan values have made her college experience so positive. When Pope Francis dedicated the month of December to people with disabilities, it gave her hope.

“The pope is a unifying figure,” Huang said. “I don’t believe he has the power to unite Catholics and Christians, but he has the power to unite everyone, and the fact that he’s uniting people over the struggles that I face and so many other people face is a great thing.”

When Huang isn’t undergoing intensive therapy at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation, she’s the vice president of the Psychology Club, writing articles about adaptive fashion and maintaining a 4.0 GPA, all without being able to take notes in class.

People with physical disabilities make up 13% of the U.S. population. That’s 42 million reasons for Huang to stay motivated, one for every person who’s ever waited 15 minutes for an elevator ride.

“People with disabilities are not only the largest minority group in the world; people have to remember that you can join this minority group at any point in your life,” Huang said. “Anyone is one accident away from getting a disability. I want to leave the world better for those that come after me.”

St. Francis has Huang’s back, always looking for new ways to make her feel seen.

“At St. Francis College, don’t confuse accessibility with opportunity,” Cecere said. “When I see Jessica, I don’t see a student in a wheelchair; I see opportunity. It’s less about the disability and more about the possibility and where they can go from here.”

Huang is the one in class, but she says the world has much to learn.

Huang’s voice is one of positive change on campus. She meets regularly with President Cecere about ways the school building and curriculum can become more inclusive for everyone.

One in four adults around the country has some disability. That’s about 27% of Americans, according to the CDC. Those numbers include more than 12% of people, like Huang, who have mobility issues. Almost 13 % have cognitive issues, and more than 10% have some hearing or seeing difficulties.

Huang points out that people with physical disabilities aren’t just one of the largest minorities; it’s a group that anyone can join at any point in their life.