Oct. 4, 2010

Student clubs teach teens with disabilities to cook Italian

On Saturday mornings, when the cooking labs in Martha van Rensselaer Hall are usually empty and quiet, 16 Cornell students and seven teenagers with disabilities ranging from autism to muscular dystrophy chopped, grated, stirred and laughed Oct. 2 as they prepared to make an Italian meal from scratch.

Claudia Pazlopez '12, community outreach coordinator for the Food Science Club, discussed food safety before dispatching each group to individual stations to make brochette, spaghetti and butter cookies. Some students confronted their ingredients with ease; others were more hesitant.

"I've never really cooked before," said Zacchare Charvolin, 13, as he chopped basil. "But so far this is pretty fun."

Charvolin and six other adolescents had heard about the class through the Franziska Racker Centers. The event was co-sponsored by the Cornell Union for Disabled Awareness (CUDA), which seeks to spread awareness on campus about people with disabilities.

"If you're an [able-bodied] student, it's not something you really think about," said Talia Shear '12, co-president of CUDA. "You assume that if people don't have a visible disability, they're completely able-bodied, which isn't always true."

CUDA has posted flyers in the past around campus, highlighting areas that are inaccessible to students with disabilities.

"People walk around campus all the time, not even thinking, 'If I had something as small as a broken arm, could I get in here?'" said Shear. "It's actually pretty bad."

However, said Shear, improvements have begun to take place. For example, Cornell now offers three classes specifically focused on disability education. In 2009 Cornell also hired a consultant to evaluate how buildings could better comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act in terms of accessibility. But improvements may occur slowly. "It all depends on budget," Shear said. "And we all know how that goes."

Jon Ulrich, a family support coordinator at Franziska Racker and a member of its community outreach staff, said that even getting to the cooking labs with the teens was a challenge.

"[Martha van Rensselaer Hall] is like a labyrinth," he said. "We had to use two different elevators to even get up to the third floor."

Ulrich said he hopes that events like these will allow adolescents from the Franziska Racker Centers to forge friendships that last beyond scheduled events.

"There will always be barriers," he said. "There are issues with communication, sometimes with transportation. But our goal is that people can share interests, not disabilities."

To that end, Shear urges more student organizations to co-sponsor events with CUDA. "We want to help give disabled students independence," she said, "but we also want students who aren't regularly exposed to these issues to get involved too."

One of the teens, Lianna White, 18, said she likes the social atmosphere of the community-based programs. "This is my second time taking this class," she said, referring to a similar class that CUDA sponsored last year. "I like the people I meet here."

Kathleen Jercich '11 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.