Dianne Hengst aims to make disability part of nation's diversity discussion

Dianne Hengst

Dianne Hengst

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(Aug. 12, 2014) -- Third-generation San Antonian Dianne Hengst lived in a home that hosted international students from South Africa, Germany and Iceland. Her mother also cared for foster children, some of whom had disabilities.

As a child, Dianne never thought those children and teens were different. She just saw diversity, and she thought her family was cool.

"My family was accepting and inclusive," Hengst recalls, looking back on those good times.

It wasn't until years later, when she ventured outside San Antonio, that she realized her family, and her hometown, were unique.

"When I was growing up, San Antonio didn't seem to have the challenges with diversity that you saw in other parts of the country," Hengst recalls. "We were a diverse community, and we all just got along. In fact, it was more than that. We embraced our diversity."

As Hengst worked to earn her Ph.D. at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, a faculty member challenged her to advance the diversity discussion.

"I learned there was a space to teach others how to value and embrace diversity -- diversity that included disability."

Today, Hengst serves as the director of UTSA Student Disability Services. On paper, the office provides services to help students gain access so they can be successful. In reality, it does so much more.

Beyond meeting the immediate accommodation needs of students with disabilities, the Student Disability Services office works closely with Student Health Services and Counseling Services to provide comprehensive support to approximately 800 UTSA students with disabilities. Hengst says the three offices are a natural fit; they often end up seeing the same students and by working together, they're better able to help those Roadrunners navigate the challenges associated with their disabilities. Together, they have advocated for policy changes to support students with disabilities.

Some campuses say they value diversity, but Hengst says UTSA walks the walk. "It's owned here. And it's owned from the top down."

Despite the advances, though, there's still a lot of work to do. Many UTSA students have had such negative experiences leading up to UTSA that they're afraid to ask for help.

Hengst remembers one student in particular -- an international student who dreamed of becoming a scholar but stuttered. His disability would have barred him from graduate school in his home country. Filled with anguish, he lingered outside Student Disability Services for more than an hour before he gathered up the courage to go in and ask for help.

"Some people are afraid to talk about disabilities," she says. "In actuality, we should be scared to not talk about them. Shame and fear create a dynamic that pits people against each other."

As Hengst brings disability into the diversity discussion, she hopes UTSA will become a recognized model for other universities across the country. She wants people to understand that disabilities aren't weaknesses. Today, college students with disabilities compete under the same admissions requirements as other prospective students and they master the same curriculum. But they do these things while managing and overcoming their disabilities.

"Disability is an aspect of human experience that crosses all boundaries of race, class and gender, and it leaves a trail in all societies," says Hengst. "I see people with disabilities, perhaps more than any other group, possess attributes that help them adjust on a daily basis because they must think creatively about how to solve problems and accomplish tasks. Students with disabilities are one of UTSA's greatest assets."

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