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Panel reflects on life at Stanford with a disability

CORRECTIONS: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that professor Drew Nelson teaches the class, “Perspectives in Assistive Technology.” The course is actually taught by lecturer David L. Jaffe. Additionally, the name of Torcolini’s seeing-eye dog is Lexia, not Alexi as previously reported. The Daily regrets the errors.


Stanford students with physical disabilities discussed and answered questions about their lives and the assistive technologies that help them overcome living difficulties that result from their conditions in a public panel discussion on Thursday.


The presentation, titled “Perspectives of Stanford Students with a Disability,” was part of Engineering 110, a course designed to expose students to the difficulties that people with physical disabilities face and inspire innovation in assistive technologies.


Vivian Wong ’12 and Aubrie Lee ’14 described their disabilities and how the conditions affect their lives to an audience of around 30 students and community members.


Lee, whose condition prevents her from moving her face muscles, said she began riding in a wheelchair at age eight when she could no longer walk.


“When normal muscles are used, they are supposed to get stronger,” she explained. “But when my muscles are used, they get weaker.”


When asked how accessible Stanford campus is to those who depend on a wheelchair, Lee said that “overall, it’s very accessible.”


“So far, there have not been any classrooms that I have not been able to get to that I need to get to,” she said. “There are some instances once in a while, like when I go to an event… that’s being held after hours and the power in the elevator doesn’t work or it has been blocked; so you have to go up the stairs to get into the building.”


“The one thing… is that the campus is so huge that it takes me a long time to get from one class to another,” Lee added. “So, I try to map out my classes so that they’re close to each other.”


Wong is mobile and doesn’t require an assistive machine, however she was born with a congenital spinal disorder, called spondylothoracic dysplasia, which results in a truncated torso, forward curvature of her spine, limited neck rotation and reduced lung capacity. She agreed with Lee that, generally, the Stanford culture is accepting and non-judgmental.


“Fellow students are really nice,” she said. “I would say that the only trouble I get… [is] around a little kid. I get questions like, ‘Are you a child or are you a mommy?’… It’s interesting how the parents react actually. Either they are like ‘Whoa, stop,’ or they just say, ‘Aw, isn’t that funny?’”


Lecturer David L. Jaffe, who teaches the class titled “Perspectives in Assistive Technology,” also talked about one of his students, Nicole Torcolini ’12, who could not attend the panel because she was sick. Torcolini lost most of her eyesight just after her fourth birthday due to cancer in her optic chasm. The cancer treatment also caused her to be slightly hard of hearing in both ears.


With the help of a Braille notetaker, hearing aids, a computer screen-reader and a seeing-eye dog named Lexia, Torcolini is now a successful Stanford senior. Majoring in computer science with a concentration on the interaction between humans and machines, Torcolini wrote software that back-translates Braille into readable text, and is now operating a web-based business to make that software available to others. Her latest project is designing a program that allows the blind to picture the shape of the graph using sound frequencies.


Lee said that the accessibility of the Stanford campus – which was an important factor in her choice of university – and the work that the Office of Accessible Education does plays an important role by ensuring she has the appropriate accommodations.


She recounted a time when she was stranded on the second floor of the art library, having gone up the elevator just before they shut the power off, and received helped when she called the hotline number that the office gives to students with a physical disability.


The students on the panel agreed that Stanford allowed them to do extraordinary things and accommodated their lifestyle needs so that they could take advantage of the University’s opportunities. In addition to University resources, Wong said the accommodating atmosphere is in part due to the kindness and tolerance of its students, faculty and staff.


“I really appreciate when my friends take [my condition] into account,” she said. “These friends, especially the ones I’ve made here, have been super helpful. They’ve never made it a thing… I know they notice it, but they would do anything to accommodate me. And it wouldn’t be out of the way or an obstacle.”

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