‘Pioneer paving the way for others’

Carrie Rupp

Three women with disabilities say sororities enhanced their college experience

When Danielle Flickinger rolled her bright red wheelchair into a room full of women, all the excitement and chattering suddenly stopped.

“There was not a sound in the room,” said Flickinger, junior psychology and justice studies major. “It was almost eerie.”

Flickinger describes herself as “pioneer paving the way for others.” In 2002 she was the first disabled woman to join a sorority at Kent State. Last spring, two other women, Jocelyn Harper and Jen Kennedy, followed her lead.

“Living with a disability and being in a fraternity or sorority is more commonly the exception, rather than the rule,” said Beth Gittons, a director in the Office of Campus Life.

“These women deal with challenges that the common student can never really conceptualize, everyday of their lives,” Gittons said. “They are stereotype breakers.”

In Fall 2002, Flickinger, who has had Cerebral Palsy since birth, decided she would follow in her family’s footsteps and join a sorority.

Flickinger, a member of Chi Omega, insists that no one ever told her she couldn’t do it, but many told her they weren’t sure how she was going to do it.

“No one knew what they were doing when I came along,” Flickinger said. “We all just kind of learned as we went along.”

Flickinger didn’t have much trust in the Greek system at first, and was worried she wouldn’t get an invitation to join a sorority. After her initial introduction, Flickinger said the entire Greek community proved her wrong with their genuine interest and kindness.

“They integrated me into every event and every task without making it into a big deal,” Flickinger said. “They treated me like every other potential new member”.

While Flickinger was beginning her experience in the sorority, Harper, who also has Cerebral Palsy, was just getting used to campus.

Harper, junior integrated language arts major, said she always knew she wanted to join a sorority, but decided to wait until she felt more comfortable with college.

In Spring 2003 she started looking in the Daily Kent Stater’s Greek Beats advertisments to find information about sororities recruiting. She found her niche in the first sorority she contacted, Sigma Sigma Sigma.

Harper said her friends and family were supportive of her decision to join; her mother and stepfather were also in Greek organizations. But she said other students are sometimes surprised when they see her wearing her letters.

“You have the people that say, ‘Oh the sorority doesn’t care that you use crutches?’” Harper said. “But those people don’t know anything about the Greek system, so they make close-minded generalizations, I don’t pay any attention to them or their comments.”

Harper’s positive experience led her to encourage her friend, Jen Kennedy, to consider it.

“I told her how much fun I was having, and I knew that she would too,” Harper said.

At 12, Kennedy was diagnosed with Behcet’s disease, an audio immune disorder that causes inflammation — and in her case, blindness. She walks around campus with a cane and Delta Zeta block letters on her chest.

She came back her sophomore year after taking a year off to learn to deal independently with her blindness at the St. Louis Center for the Blind, and said she felt like something was missing from her college experience.

“I saw how excited Jocelyn was, and I talked to Danielle about her experience with Chi Omega,” Kennedy said. “So I started to look for sororities’ ads in the Daily Kent Stater, and I also checked out some of their Web sites.

“Delta Zeta had a really nice Web site, and it was really speech friendly, so I had a good feeling from the beginning,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s experience early on was similar to Flickinger’s and Harper’s. She was nervous at first, and wondered if she could do it. She soon learned that sorority life filled void.

“It restored my faith in catty females,” Kennedy said. “I lost a lot of friends, mainly female, after I lost my sight.

“I feel like I don’t have to prove myself anymore, they accept me for being me,” Kennedy said.

Flickinger echoed her sentiments.

“(Chi Omega is ) my outlet, it’s my soft space to land when I get tired of putting up with people’s junk all day,” Flickinger said. “It provides me the opportunity to be just one of the girls and to feel normal.”

There are a few activities that the girls can’t participate in, including Songfest, Greek Games and Lip Sync because of the physical aspects involved.

“Not participating in those activities hasn’t in anyway limited my experience,” Harper said. “I’m still there, at every event sitting with my sisters and cheering them on as they compete. And that is just as important.”

Kennedy said she tries to get involved as much as she can.

“I’ve even participated in Greek bowling,” Kennedy said. “I think I may have got the lowest score, but it was a lot of fun trying.”

Kennedy was quick to dispel the rumor that women in one sorority are all alike — in fact sororities are unique because of their differences.

“They have their own personalities, and they are allowed to be and encouraged to be their own personalities,” Kennedy said.

Flickinger agreed.

“Jocelyn, Jen and I are proof positive that they are willing to accept differences,” Flickinger said.

Contact Greek Life reporter Carrie Rupp at [email protected].