UCF senior wins Hillel grant and plans the first 'Inclusion Week'

Madelaine Reis (right) and Kirk Root (left) at the 2017 Orlando Pride Parade on October 14. Root is a disability activist and works alongside Reis at the Orange County Democratic Disability Caucus.

Before she graduates, Madelaine Reis wants to leave a legacy on the disabled community at UCF.

And she’s going to do that one week at a time, starting with UCF’s very first Inclusion Week.

“I myself have accommodations and it became interesting to me how each teacher would interpret them differently,” Reis said. “Different students have different conditions — it may be physical, cognitive, health related, or mental health.”

Reis recently received a $1,000 grant from Hillel International, a global Jewish campus organization with a chapter at UCF, in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation's Link20 Network, which aims to connect young disability advocates.

Her project submission, which won her the grant, was an outline for Inclusion Week. No one applying for the grant had submitted a campus-wide event.

Central Florida Hillel will be using her Inclusion Week model to create other events for colleges nation-wide.

Heavily involved in the Orange County disabled community, Reis partnered up with Student Accessibility Services and chose to create UCF’s very first Inclusion Week.

The event, which will run from April 9-13, is dedicated to sharing the stories of UCF’s disabled community, as well as educating faculty and students on how to better create an accessible campus.

As a member of the Orange County Democratic Disability Caucus, Reis works around Orlando to bring accessibility and visibility to the disabled community.

“She’s 4-foot-11, full of bite, full of energy and a very strong personality,” her father, Sandy Reis, said. “She can say, ‘Look at where I got myself, here was my journey,’ and that would help a lot of people. She’s not shy.”

Reis’s Inclusion Week is her first time planning a large-scale event. She hopes students and educators will not only learn about those around them, but that disabled students can understand that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for accommodations.

“Some students aren’t even aware of SAS and the accommodations that can be given to them,” Reis said. “Not everyone is aware of the resources they have on campus. It’s also hard for some students to come out because they do not want to be labeled as disabled and have trouble expressing that.”

Caroline Masia, a freshman with cochlear implants, is excited to help plan the event with Reis. She hopes to continue planning Inclusion Week even after Reis graduates and wants people to understand that students with disabilities aren’t that much different.

“There’s just this negative connotation around disabilities,” Masia said. “This week will really help UCF students to understand that people with disabilities are not any different than us, they just have disabilities and challenges.”

David Figueroa, a UCF alumnus with cerebral palsy, is looking forward to speaking at the Teacher Lunch and Learn panel discussion, one of many Inclusion Week events. He also wants to encourage students to not be afraid to ask for help.

“This week will really showcase what SAS did for me in terms of me being a student, what kind of services I used and how I was able to persevere with [SAS] alongside me,” Figueroa said.

Joshua Mishaan, a senior and UCF Cares ambassador, is helping Reis plan and talk to groups like ASL Knights and Access UCF to partner up. He’s most excited for the Teacher Lunch and Learn and wants this panel to help open a way for students to start talking.

“This would open the door for a lot of students who don’t know these [accommodations],” Mishaan said. “But it will also open the conversation for students to talk to teachers and administration to see what they can do to help students who need accommodations for life on campus.”

By getting the word out through social media and talking to different student groups, Reis hopes that everyone will be willing to attend each event planned throughout the week.

The first event — the Social Media Day on April 9 — will give students the opportunity to use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to share their stories of inclusion.

Movie night will take place the next day at Northview at Hillel of Central Florida, where "Diffability Hollywood" by filmmaker Adrian Esposito will be shown. Esposito, who is also disability advocate and is on the autism spectrum, will also be Skyping in for a Q&A session.

The Teacher Lunch and Learn, where a panel of students with a range of disabilities will speak to educators on how classrooms can be more accessible and inclusive, will take place April 12.

The last event, Inclusion Shabbat, will take place at Hillel of Central Florida April 13. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, will take some time for students to look at disabilities in Jewish scripture.

Reis believes that there are advances to made on campus and it can only be achieved if all students get involved, disabled or not.

“I wanted to make an impact on campus and bring what I’ve been doing outside onto campus,” Reis said. “Inclusion and accessibility are things that I feel like anywhere can be improved, and there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement at UCF.”

CorrectionAn earlier version of this article said Reis received the grant from Central Florida Hillel. It was actually from Hillel International, its parent organization, in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation's Link20 Network.

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