Advocating for Myself
Western student learns to embrace his disability in a world that says he’s broken
Written by Kaelyn King // Photo by Daisey James
Forrest Gump was nearly rejected from public school for having an IQ under 75.
Rain Man had an extraordinary memory that allowed him to count toothpicks as they were falling from the box.
Western junior Elmer Carampot is a real person. Sure, he hasn’t shaken hands with John F. Kennedy and he can’t help count cards, but he does share one trait with these characters: an intellectual disability. His disability isn’t the thing that has held him back, but rather the stereotypes he’s faced throughout his entire life.
Elmer Carampot was born in Fremont, California. His family moved up to Bellingham, Washington, shortly after he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the first grade. His pediatrician began prescribing anything from Ritalin to Adderall, but his mother, Cheryl Carampot, decided against any form of controlled substance.
“Kids put on that stuff grow up to be little meth heads,” Cheryl says. “When he was under that medication, he was like a zombie. All zoned out.”
At the age of 13, Elmer’s parents divorced, triggering a wave of anxiety. Doctors began speculating that his disability extended beyond ADHD, but didn’t diagnose him. He began putting on an excessive amount of weight and closed himself off from any potential friendships.
In elementary school, he was separated from other students and placed into a special education classroom. He became socially withdrawn and his self-esteem plummeted. After graduation, he attended Whatcom Community College, but the pressure to socialize triggered his anxiety. He dropped out and took a year off, entering a deep depression.
“He would hide under a blanket like Linus [from Charlie Brown] so I got tired of him doing that,” Cheryl says. “He would run to the bathroom and throw up. It was that bad.”
Elmer completed his first full quarter at Whatcom in spring 2011. He passed two courses, but despite his passion for the written word, English 101 turned out to be too overwhelming.
“At one point I locked myself in my room for seven hours just constantly rewriting an essay,” Elmer says. “I just kept rewriting and editing. I became my worst critic.”
It wasn’t until he began regularly volunteering at the Bellingham Food Bank in 2015 that passion lit its way into Elmer’s soul. There he met other adults with disabilities. He wasn’t alone. In fact, there was a whole community of people with disabilities. People who had faced the same stigmas throughout their lives. It was then that he decided to major in communications.
“Communications found me,” he says. “I had to unwind many of these narratives that were given to me. I used to be really unreflective. I had to develop this analytic personality over time.”
Contrary to how most students choose a major, Elmer hasn’t chosen a path that reflects his strengths. He’s chosen a path that completely counteracts the crippling social anxiety he’s faced his whole life.
At the age of 25, Elmer has finally accepted his disability and wants to understand why it has taken him so long. It wasn’t until Aug. 13, 2015, that Elmer was finally diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability. This means he has adaptive behavior skills (conceptual, social and practical) that are significantly lower than average. His doctor used the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IQ Test and found that although he has an IQ lower than 98 percent of the population, he has a higher than average verbal reasoning ability.
Elmer became exceedingly driven when he began school at Western during winter of 2016. Although pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communication studies has improved his verbal skills, his focus is on breaking down the barriers ableism has set up around his life. Ableism is the discrimination against those with disabilities.
“People create stereotypes to help make order in their lives,” Elmer says. “Unfortunately, ableism is a product of people’s negative or misleading views about people with disabilities. It can be minor things or it can be downright hateful things.”
The ableism Elmer has faced throughout his life has mostly been self-inflicted. Falling short of society’s expectations for “normal” cognitive behavior, he has struggled with self-esteem.
He compares this phenomenon to the doll test used during Brown v. Board of Education to study the effects of segregation on self-esteem of African-American children in the 1940s. Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark placed four dolls that were identical except for skin color in front of children ages 3 to 7 and asked which doll they preferred. The majority of the subjects chose the white doll. The study concluded that societal prejudices had deeply affected how African-American children saw themselves.
Similar to news coverage during the Civil Rights Movement, Elmer blames the media for setting up stereotypes for people with disabilities.
“A lot of adults with disabilities are treated like children,” he says. “Media can present all sorts of ideologies so that when people consume media, they become those stereotypes.”
The way the medical field discusses disabilities also reinforces these stigmas, Elmer says. The constant push to find a cure leaves Elmer and people like him feeling as though their disabilities are diseases instead of characteristics to be embraced.
“The worst thing for a child with a disability is to feel that they’re separate,” he says. “You start losing the ability to express certain emotions when you’ve been isolated like that. I even lost the ability to laugh in public.”
Once he began attending school consistently, Elmer found outlets to cope with his anxiety. He began exercising and lost 90 pounds, relieving him from obesity. His passion for creative writing made its way back into his life and now he’s hoping to complete a novel sometime in the near future.
“I often write about a character who is lonely,” Elmer says. “An author often creates characters who reflect aspects of their own personality.”
Elmer admits that although he has found ways to manage stress, loneliness has still lived inside him throughout his entire college experience. He has recently reached out to the disabled community for the first time and attended The Arc of Whatcom County’s Young Adult Self-Advocacy (YASA) support group.
The Arc is a nonprofit organization that helps adults with developmental disabilities learn to be independent within their personal lives and the community. They provide workshops on topics ranging from sexuality to voting rights, so anybody can become active members in their community.
Elmer met with YASA Coordinator Jessika Houston and expressed his concerns about feeling isolated as a person with a disability in an abled society. Houston says his story isn’t unique.
“I think for Western students, being surrounded by neurotypical people who are out partying, you might not feel like you have a place in that,” she says. “You need to find how you fit in that culture because we all have those desires for social engagement and sexuality.”
Sexual violence is a major issue within the disabled community and Houston is making it her priority to educate YASA members on the importance of identifying abuse. Twenty-five percent of women with intellectual disabilities are sexually abused at least once in their lifetimes, according to a study done in 1991 by the Human Sciences Press. Although the chance of women being victimized is much higher, men with disabilities are twice as likely to be sexually abused compared to men without disabilities. Houston stresses that people with disabilities have the ability to maintain healthy relationships with the right sexual education.
“It’s unfair and unrealistic to think that people with disabilities don’t have sexual drive,” Houston says. “I hope that love can happen for everybody as long as they know how to be safe. Unfortunately, there are a lot of predators in the world, so teaching about sexuality is really important instead of just shoving it under the rug.”
Since sexuality and other self-advocacy issues often become relevant in the lives of college students, Houston encouraged Elmer to create a support group at Western.
“Having a support network for anyone just feels better,” Houston says. “When you know that there’s someone else walking a similar path, it’s reassuring. It’s easy for a lot of people to feel isolated in general in the world.”
That support network can become possible on Western’s campus with the help of the A.S. Disability Outreach Center (DOC). Elmer has been working with the center coordinator and Western student Courtney Manz to create a club specifically for students who have disabilities to discuss stigma and advocacy on campus.
The number of people with an intellectual disability who attend college increased by 42 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to a 2014 study by the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. The surge is expected to continue.
Unfortunately, only a few of the 1,400 students with disabilities at Western have actually reached out to the DOC and Manz doesn’t yet have enough people to establish a club.
Manz says that although it’s great to see so many students concerned with social justice issues, disability issues often get pushed to the side. Manz suggests starting the conversation by offering support to people with disabilities when they seem like they need a hand, whether it’s studying or navigating a gravel path if their disability is physical, and then respecting their decision if they decline. She’d also like professors to be more informed about offering accommodations to students who need it, using the educational video about accommodations for professors currently being made by the DOC.
Because Manz is the only member of the DOC, it has been difficult to put on events as an independent entity. With Elmer by her side, Manz is confident that the DOC has potential to reach more students who need it.
When Elmer graduates next year, his motivation will be disability advocacy. His heart is set on a career in helping other people with disabilities, possibly in the nonprofit sector, so that people with disabilities don’t have to struggle for acceptance as much as he did.
“I want to help my peers,” Elmer says. “They need community. They need to understand that they aren’t broken. They aren’t defective. They’re full-fleshed human beings.”