An athlete, an artist, and awareness: Senior campus leaders team up to promote disability rights

Senior sociology majors Danielle Larsen and Jordan Ortiz are making important strides--large and small--about disability awareness in Rowan University's classrooms, in campus activities, in their work in the community, and even on the playing field.
The athlete explains it like this: "Oh, we're fighters," Danielle Larsen says. "In some ways, we gave ourselves a personal challenge to broaden the horizons of everybody else."

The artist takes this approach: "Part of my goal is to form a future where my disability isn't going to stand out like a bad painting," Jordan Ortiz says. "We can't consider our society to be completely civilized if we can't accept people with disabilities."

Their imagery is different, but their message essentially is the same. Both senior sociology majors and roommates, Larsen and Ortiz are making important strides--large and small--about disability awareness in Rowan University's classrooms, in campus activities, in their work in the community, and even on the playing field.

In the very deepest sense, the two are campus leaders, says John Woodruff, director of the Academic Success Center, which houses Disability Resources.

"They're two students who don't let disabilities keep them from doing anything they need--or want--to do," says Woodruff. "They have real moxie."

This academic year, Larsen, who is visually impaired, and Ortiz, who is blind, have helped organize and lead a host of disability awareness events, including last summer's campus forum that marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Together, they spoke candidly about their own experiences navigating the world--and Rowan's campus--as people with disabilities.

Additionally, both student leaders worked on Disability Awareness Week observances last fall, helping to organize student panels and the Try on a Disability event, which gave able-bodied students a chance to understand what it's like to explore campus in a wheelchair or with a visual impairment. Ortiz, whose favorite artistic medium is ceramics, designed the printed brochure for Disability Awareness Week.

A member of the New Jersey women's team that won the 2010 National Goalball Championship in June, Larsen works as an academic coach in the Academic Resource Center, where she mentors students, assisting them with organizational and time management skills. She recently competed in the Midwestern Regional Goalball Tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich. Her ultimate goal in athletics is to compete in the 2016 Paralympics.

"I love the competition and the people I meet across the country," says Larsen. "I love blocking a ball someone hurls at me at 40 miles per hour."

Ortiz, meanwhile, volunteers in Rowan's Early Childhood Demonstration Center, where she works with children. Part of the time, she reads kids' books translated into Braille while her guide dog, Viola, naps nearby.

"I love their innocence," Ortiz says of the preschoolers. "They asked me to read a book and I said I couldn't because I can't see.

"They said, ‘Use your fingers,'" she continues with a laugh. "I said, ‘I have to Braille it first.'"

Her commitment to working with children impresses Lorraine Ricchezza, director of Rowan's Early Childhood Programs.

"Jordan has such guts. She's funny and warm and kind and patient. Children remember the people they meet, the people who matter to them, the people who care for them.

"Our children will remember Jordan and Viola. When you look out into the classroom and you see her sitting and reading to them and Viola is at their just looks like home."

Together with sociology professors Jay Chaskes and Anthony Sommo, Larsen and Ortiz are the driving forces behind the formation of a Rowan chapter of Delta Alpha Pi, the honor society for individuals with disabilities. Top-notch students--they boast identical grade point averages of 3.24--Larsen and Ortiz will be founding members of the chapter, which, they feel, will serve an important void on Rowan's campus.

In addition to excelling academically, members of Delta Alpha Pi, who will be sworn in during a ceremony on April 8, will be required to mentor other students with disabilities, according to Woodruff.  The ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. in the Pit of the Chamberlain Student Center.

"We feel the chapter needs to be created," says Ortiz. "It will help with awareness. It's important."

Last fall, Larsen and Ortiz began raising Xara, a Golden Retriever, as a Seeing Eye guide dog as part of the Rowan University Forward to Freedom (RUFF) program. Viola and Xara became fast friends, they say.

"We've played more games of fetch than you can ever fathom," Larsen laughs. "Watching Jordan and Viola grow as a guide dog team made me realize how important puppy raisers are. It's something really incredible to be involved in."

Upon earning their undergraduate degrees in May, Larsen and Ortiz both are considering attending graduate school. Larsen may pursue a career working with adolescents, while Ortiz wants to focus on younger children. Together, they have completed internships with SERV, which serves victims of sexual abuse, and both have served on the University's sexual violence task force.

Their accomplishments--their joie de vivre--have left an impression on Chaskes, one of their professors.

"They're spectacular," says Chaskes. "They have a very deeply held passion about communicating disability rights to other people. They're teaching me a lot.

"Danielle and Jordan have completely different personalities, but they both embrace life. There are people with disabilities--and people without disabilities--who don't ever do that.

"Embracing life takes work," he continues. "They do it with enormous gusto."