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Student with disabilities talks about his first year experiences at FGCU

 Chase Panish during his senior year of high school. Chase is now a freshman at FGCU studying history and breaking the stigmas of disabilities.
Chase Panish during his senior year of high school. Chase is now a freshman at FGCU studying history and breaking the stigmas of disabilities.

Chase Panish is aware that his presence turns heads…and he doesn’t like it. He says having Cerebral Palsy presents extra life challenges.

"When people see you know a kid in a scooter, the kid with the cane or a kid with the walker, they automatically like stare or they just don't understand," said Panish. "And then they either want to help you more which is great, but it can also be annoying because sometimes those people get in your way, or they just completely ignore you."

Panish was featured in a television documentary in the first grade. To his chagrin, he was presented as a hero. He needs people to know that he is more than his disability and he is like everyone else, which is to say, fallible.

He started classes at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in August. He says his first day was a disaster.

"I didn't really plan out my classes, right. And I really didn't know Main Campus well," Panish recalled.

"So I got out of my dorm, and I came an hour early for my first class thinking, hey, that will give me time to navigate, I was completely wrong," said Panish. "I was, I think 20 minutes, late for my first class, because I didn’t know where I was going. And also when you’re disabled, although there are a number of buttons, there are some doors, you know, you can’t open, which means either you wait for someone, which hurts time, or you try yourself."

On top of that, he had mechanical issues.

"After that, I realized that my charging for like the scooter that I use was not fully charged," said Panish. "So then I had to move my scooter to like a granny speed to make sure it wouldn’t die."

He guesses there will always be people who don’t seem to understand him.

"It's better for you to just ask the question," said Panish. "Because I don't mind explaining stuff to people. But I do mind people staring and being annoyed."

Additional from Alice Norwood, A Reporter's Notebook

People with disabilities, such as myself, want people to know that we are more than what hinders us.

I chose Chase’s story because I knew I could do it justice. I have Autism Spectrum Disorder, and figured that having disabilities myself could help me not only relate to Chase, but also make a compelling story. When Chase and I started talking before I recorded, I realized that despite having different challenges, the perceptions we faced from others were the same.

Chase’s struggle started in the first grade, when he and his twin brother were the basis of a documentary. He said the filming process was stressful because he had little to no privacy.

My struggle had to do with being bullied, by kids and even by teachers for being different. People would ask me why I talked so much, why I was so annoying, and why I just didn’t get “it.” I still to this day do not understand what “it” is. I always knew I was different though.

The comments Chase heard were different, but they impacted him.

“Even as far back as kindergarten, my kindergarten teacher told me I'm pretty much hopeless,” Panish said. “When someone tells me I can't do something, most of the time I try, I do it, and I do it better than them just to show them that it's possible.”

In my junior year of high school, a teacher made fun of my disabilities by telling me that she wanted to watch me cry while trying to do her four-year-old son’s puzzle because she believed that I was incapable of doing it.

Telling someone with a disability that they are “hopeless” or “incapable” is not only cruel, it perpetuates a stigma. That needs to change.

For Chase, that change could come if people would just ask him about his disability. In my case change would look like showing me patience when I don’t understand something you may be asking of me, or a figure of speech that is confusing to me. People with disabilities have a right to be treated like everyone else.