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Miami students work to help alumna and daughter

01/02/2007

Miami students in a disability studies class were so moved by a story they heard they decided to take action. After learning about Lianna, the 5-year-old daughter of Utawna Leap (Miami '93) and her struggles with a non-accessible home, they got an idea. The result is a video application to ABC's "Extreme Makeover Home Edition."

The video can be viewed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XccqLL8c_-U.

Kathy McMahon-Klosterman (educational psychology) has taught two sections of the class for two years, a foundation course in a newly approved disability studies minor at Miami. Her students met Lianna informally by taking her ice skating and learned more about her home situation when Utawna came to speak in November.

As Utawna explains on the video, "Lianna's sort of a 24/7 job." The pair live with Utawna's parents in Middletown. The 1976 bi-level home makes it impossible for Lianna to use a $42,000 wheelchair, so it's stored in a garage. It is difficult for her to maneuver in and out of the bathroom; she shares a bedroom and bed with her mother. A fully accessible home is Utawna's dream, so that Lianna can achieve independent mobility.

Alison Loiacono is a senior majoring in speech communication who took the class. "Utawna is an amazingly inspirational speaker," she says. "Her attitude is the best thing. She refuses to not let Lianna have a normal childhood."

Students in both class sections met to brainstorm ideas, deciding to make a pitch to the popular ABC show. The application process requires a video and completion of a lengthy questionnaire. Students will submit the application just after winter break and have put the video on YouTube.com in the meantime to publicize Lianna's need.

The project is just one of several tackled by students taking the class. "Students usually enter [the class] with common notions of what it means to be disabled in America," says McMahon-Klosterman. "It is a medical model of telethons, charity and pity. One of the goals is to change this attitude so that people see disability issues as civil rights. That is, this is an equal opportunity minority group, any one of us can enter it tomorrow. People with disabilities do not want charity or special treatment, they seek their civil rights as citizens ... no more and no less."

A previous class worked with Miami's physical facilities department to place directional indicators on every university building to show where the nearest accessible entrance is located.

Student Meaghan Woelfel, a senior marketing major, found the class life changing. "The class really changed my view on disabilities and on people with disabilities," she says. "It has also taught me that change only results when someone takes action, and that awareness is the first step to education. As a senior I can definitely say that this has by far been the most influential class I have taken at Miami."

The students now hope their awareness and efforts can change the lives of Utawna and Lianna.

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