Christine Whirlow sits down at the front of her classroom five minutes before it starts. She yanks out three items from her four pocket purple backpack jammed with books and binders for her club Owls Supporting Diversity, a support group for students with disabilities.
She’s their president.
Whirlow places a notebook, a three ring binder, and a Smartpen on her desk. The gray pen looks like any other except that it records lectures in sync with her written notes. Despite being born with only 40 percent of her hearing and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), she’s focused and takes down a page of notes, front and back, in 10 minutes. “I’ve always been an A and B student,” Whirlow says.
Growing up different
Even in middle school, when Whirlow was bullied for acting too hyper because of her ADD, she didn’t quit. When she went home crying after school, her mother Magda offered to leave her job and home school her young daughter. “When I would drive her to school, there would be a group of girls waiting to there to pick on her,” Magda says. “I didn’t want her to have to endure that on a daily basis.”
Her daughter refused. “I told her that I’m proud of who I am, and I know that I can go to school and overcome this,” Whirlow says. “I didn’t want my parents to sacrifice more than they already did for me.”
She didn’t know about the ADD until she was 7 when a teacher saw she had trouble focusing. Without her hearing aids in, Whirlow can’t hear things like tires moving on a car, knocks on the door, or her alarm clock. “People said ‘Oh, she’s just a weird kid,’” she says. “I’m not a weird kid, I just have ADD.”
Despite the bullying, Whirlow always had a support system —her family. Her parents gave her a gold necklace of a turtle when she was younger. It still hangs around her neck now. Whirlow says it makes her feel safe. “All my siblings have the same one,” she says tugging on it. ‘’I know that no matter where I am, my siblings are wearing this necklace and they’re with me. It makes me feel safe at school.”
Her three siblings — two sisters and one brother — are very protective of Whirlow, but at home it’s the other way around. “At home I find her to be very protective of them,” her mother says. “She knows what it’s like to be picked on, and she doesn’t want them to be picked on or feel unloved.”
Dedicated to disabilities
Whirlow spends 40 to 50 hours a week working in the Office for Students with Disabilities and there’s always something to do.
When she came to FAU, Whirlow went to a doctor to get re-evaluated for her disability as an adult. It’s something everyone with a disability has to do when they turn 18 (see sidebar). That’s when she was also diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). “I became OCD because I was ADD, and I was such a mess. And I would need help getting organized,” she says. “So I went to the other extreme.”
When she was diagnosed with ADD, her dad got her a Build-a-Bear bunny to make her feel better, and now she collects them. “I probably have 40 to 50 Build-a-Bears. I like to have them sit a certain way on my bed,” Whirlow says. She keeps her books alphabetized and leaves things like her phone and her necklace in the same spot each time.
“I think that that helped me do well in school and in life,” she says, “because I can keep track of where everything is.”
Organization is key since Whirlow has some projects on her mind for Owls Supporting Diversity. She just taped a commercial for Owl TV, is training for her own show on Owl Radio called Are you aware?, and is starting a branch of her club on the Davie campus. In the meantime she’s working on getting her own blog for the club and pairing up with other clubs for events. But it’s not easy.
Whirlow says some people shy away from the word “disability” and don’t want to join the club or help out.
“I can get people to come,” she says. “But once they find out what it’s for they don’t come back.”
The ones that do come back can be found in the OSD office where everyone greets you with a smile. Whirlow introduces me to Kyra Alejandro who sits down on the couch next to us with her black pomeranian, Ambrosius. The small dog is sitting quietly, almost sleeping, decked out with an orange bow and a collar with a Halloween pumpkin on it. Ambrosius is her service dog for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and panic attacks.
“Basically he’ll let me know ‘Hey, you’re not okay,’” she says. “‘I sense your body chemistry changing and let’s go take a walk or take a break.’”
Alejandro says anything like a professor moving to the other side of the room to write on the board can start an attack. “I feel like my chest is tight,” she says. “I cannot breathe, and sometimes I don’t notice that it happens but he does — he’s listening.” The dog goes with her to class, the mall, restaurants, everywhere. And people aren’t always supportive of it. At the club, that’s different.
“The support that we found here together …” Whirlow starts before Alejandro finishes her sentence. “It’s amazing. It’s like a family.”
In 2010, Alejandro sued Palm Beach State College for kicking her out of classrooms when she would try to bring Ambrosius. They told her their policies only allowed service dogs for vision and hearing impaired students.
Not at FAU.
“I think we all feel better,” Whirlow says about Alejandro having her dog with her. She’s helping Alejandro advocate for students with service dogs on campus and to make sure people aren’t bringing their personal dogs to class.
Some people don’t know how to act about Whirlow’s own disability. Because she’s hearing impaired, they think she can’t hear at all. “Some people will yell at me. And I say ‘Why are you pronouncing like that? I can hear you,’” she says. “They say, ‘We heard some people who are hearing impaired can’t read lips.’ But I don’t need people to practice muscle movements for me.”
It’s like a family
It’s 6 p.m., and five of us are leaving the Student Services building because the office is now closed. There’s Whirlow, her boyfriend Andrew Wittel, former OSD president Ann Marie Bedard, Alejandro and myself. Whirlow hits the handicap button to open the door for Bedard, the 24-year-old blind grad student.
“Where is the button?” Alejandro asks. “Oh, it’s broken.”
Whirlow says this is the case with many buildings on campus. The Physical Plant Director Josh Singer, says he’s unaware of the ongoing issue. “Once a month we visually inspect each door operator for proper functioning, and if a problem is found it is worked on and repaired,” he says. “Additionally, the Students with Disabilities Office know they can call in a work order on a malfunctioning opener, as can any of the building managers.”
We’re walking toward Coyote Jack’s. People stare at the dog and shout directions for where to go at Bedard as her cane inches closer to a cement column. And they don’t seem to mind at all.
“Coming to the club you meet so many people,” Whirlow says. “All these people are open and they embrace it so much.”
Working in the office and meeting Wittel made Whirlow want to open up about her disability. He’s also in her club, where they met three years ago. He has an Autism Spectrum disorder and Type 1 diabetes.
“I’m not saying him and I connected because we both have a disability,” she says. “But even a lot of my previous boyfriends and peers, they wouldn’t understand what I was going through.”
Whirlow hopes to get people to not shy away from their disabilities and overcome them like she did. “When children and young adults get diagnosed with ADD, some of them get depression,” she says. “They feel like there’s no hope and society is going to make fun of them.”
Wittel hopes people will understand that even though someone has a disability, they’re still independent. “They can still do a lot of things that other people can do,” he says. “I think that’s a really important thing for a lot of people to know.”
Won’t stop, won’t quit
Whirlow sits up straight and her Smartpen rarely leaves the paper. She takes notes during the whole class and takes more when she gets home and listens back to the lecture. Her backpack sits next to her desk. It has three or four textbooks in it, binders with her club paperwork, and fliers to hand out.
“I think out of all my kids she’s the most persevering and the strongest because she’s had to overcome so much,” her mother says. “Probably the strongest out of all four of them. She can handle life the best.”
Back at Coyote Jack’s, Whirlow says she wants to help her club members open up and see that they have the support they need on campus.
“Being here at FAU made a lot of people more comfortable about it,” she says, cradling a couple textbooks. “But there are some that are still shy and don’t want to be open about it as they should. I don’t want people to have to hide.”
Disabilities are expensive
Price to hear:
–Hearing aids last about three to five years.
–They range from $1,600 to $6,400 and you need two at a time. Whirlow pays $5,000 for each of her hearing aids.
–Hearing aids run on one battery each. Each battery lasts around four days and a pack of 40 batteries from Costco costs $10 or more.
–The Smartpen that records lectures costs $200.
–The remote to help amplify the lecture in her hearing aids costs $200.
Getting accommodated: To receive assistance for a disability a student has to be reevaluated at a doctor’s office for what disabilities they have. Whirlow is hearing impaired and was diagnosed with ADD. when she was 7 years old. When she turned 18, she had to pay around $700 to be diagnosed again for the same disability and found out she has OCD.
Depending on the disability, it can cost over $20,000 to raise and train a service dog in two years. Alejandro trained Ambrosius with a supervisor for her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety attacks for $1,500 in about a year.