Southeast student advocates for disability awareness on campus and in the community
What began as posts on the Living at Southeast Facebook page has turned into a movement to raise disability awareness on campus and within the local community.
Southeast senior Kayla Patek was born three months premature, causing her to be legally blind, have night blindness, nearsightedness and congenital cataracts, along with multiple other visual impairments. Patek also underwent brain surgeries as a child.
Fast-forward 25 years, Patek said she lives her life as an optimist and is looking to instill ‘positive changes’ on campus and in the community.
She has given multiple presentations on campus and is working with facilities management and upper administration to make campus more accessible. She also presented at the City Council meeting Wednesday, Oct. 16, regarding sidewalk issues in downtown Cape Girardeau and traffic signs for Normal Avenue.
It started in April when Patek posted the first and now-infamous photo of a car parked in the middle of the crosswalk outside the University Center on the Living at Southeast Facebook page.
She said she felt inclined to post the photo because of how unsafe it is and how frustrating it can be for a visually impaired student. At first, Patek said she felt people weren’t taking her seriously.
“[People on the page] were sarcastic or mean, or like they didn’t think it was a big deal,” Patek said. “You don’t realize how important this is to somebody [who is] visually impaired, and they have a different ability than you do.”
While she said she did have some support and people who stood up for her on the page, those negative responses actually motivated her to keep making the posts.
“I was too stubborn and determined,” Patek said. “Even though those sarcastic, laughing people got on my nerves so bad, I was going to figure out a way to get them to change their perspective.”
Professor of Communication Studies and Modern Languages Jeanne Harris, who has been a motivator to Patek from the beginning, took it a step further and encouraged her to do presentations on campus.
She helped Patek with the presentation and even hosted the first presentation in one of her classes in early September.
“I want to encourage Kayla because she has a really powerful message to share,” Harris said. “She does it so sweetly, you can’t help but want to help her. She has such a sharp mind and such a kind heart.”
Her presentation, ‘How to Navigate Campus as a Visually Impaired Student,’ is often co-presented with Counseling and Disability Services and has involved a Braille demonstration by Patek.
Patek has now given five presentations in classes or events around campus.
The presentation discusses different visual impairments, ways the campus can improve accessibility, how students and faculty can be more adaptable and more.
In her most recent presentation on Wednesday, Oct. 16, Patek said a couple of areas in need of improvement include the space between the University Center and Vandiver Hall and the space between Myers Hall and Kent Library.
Patek said she is currently working with Assistant to the President for Equity and Diversity Sonia Rucker, Facilities Management and other members of upper administration to get better lighting for these areas. She may also be giving her presentation at the next Board of Regents meeting.
Patek said she has noticed an improvement with people parking on the crosswalk, and a shift in people’s attitudes toward the topic. She attributes this to the support she gained over time from faculty, staff and upper administration, as well as attention she recently received from a story by KFVS12.
With this shift, Patek was ready to take her movement to an even bigger scale by giving her presentation to Cape Girardeau City Council on Oct. 16 to address a sidewalk on Main Street and propose traffic signs on Normal Avenue outside of the University Center.
“There is an area on Main Street that is not ADA compliant,” Patek said. “That should be available for anybody with a disability to use without any issue.”