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Three women with disabilities

Empowerment for Female College Students with Disabilities and Their Allies

College Students event Panelists and facilitators smile together in front of the graffiti wall at the event

Front Row: Candace Cable; Back Row (L-R): Kris Robinson, Gabrielle Einstein-Sim, Brilynn Rakes, Rebecca Gross, Debbie Fink, Valora Blackson, Crystal Vazquez; Not Pictured: Maryanne Sackarnoski and Barbara Bookman; photo courtesy of Jordan Perez

About Our Presenters

Barbara Bookman smilingBarbara Bookman is CUNY’s University Director of Disability Programs. Prior to her role at CUNY, she was the Director of Services for Students with Disabilities at Queensborough Community College. She earned her Master of Arts, Counseling & Vocational Rehabilitation, from Teachers College, Columbia University.

On behalf of the CUNY System, Ms. Bookman welcomed the participants, and provided background information on its Disability Services.

headshot of Gabrielle Einstein-Sim smiling and facing the camera wearing a tank top color photoGabrielle Einstein-Sim holds a Master’s degree in Community Health Education from Teachers College Columbia and a Bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan in economics. She is a member of the Jewish National Fund’s Disability Task Force, focusing specifically on the Special in Uniform program, which enables people with disabilities to serve in the Israeli army.

Ms. Einstein-Sim moderated our opening webinar panel: “Self-Advocacy On & Beyond Campus”, and then facilitated small group discussions, ‘Self-Advocacy 301: How to Self-Advocate in Personal Relationships.’

Crystal Vazquez headshotCrystal M. Vazquez is the Associate Director of AccessABILITY Services and Women’s Resources Services Specialist at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College. She has extensive equal access and leadership experience in higher education. Ms. Vazquez holds a master’s degree in public administration and a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her work focuses specifically on equal access, developing diversity and social justice focused programs specifically around college success and supporting young adults through their educational journey. Ms. Vazquez played the key leadership role supporting this event and the other four events graciously hosted by Guttman Community College.

Ms. Vazquez participated in our opening webinar panel: “Self-Advocacy On & Beyond Campus”, addressing the topic of ‘Curricular Self-Advocacy’. She then co-facilitated small group discussions, ‘Self-Advocacy 101: How to Self-Advocate with your Disability Services Office.’

Maryanne Sackarnoski headshotMaryanne Sackarnoski works with Guttman Community College’s AccessABILITY Services as the Assistive Technology Specialist. She is a graduate student of CUNY School of Professional Studies. With a Bachelor’s Degree from John Jay College, Ms. Sackarnoski worked in its Office of Accessibility Services before her current position. Ms. Sackarnoski played a techno-supporting role with the series’ events hosted by Guttman Community College.

Ms. Sackarnoski co-facilitated small group discussions, ‘Self-Advocacy 101: How to Self-Advocate with your Disability Services Office.’

Brilynn Rakes headshot

Brilynn Rakes is originally from Visalia, California. She completed a dual-degree program in New York City at Fordham University earning both a BA in Communications and Media Studies and a BFA in Dance from the Ailey/Fordham Dance Program. Legally blind, she performed in various concerts in California and NYC, and competed in the New York City Finals of the Youth American Grand Prix in 2012 and 2013. In addition, Ms. Rakes was featured as the AT&T Spotlight Performer on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars where she performed alongside Emmy-nominated dancer and choreographer Derek Hough. Currently, Ms. Rakes is working toward a degree in Business Administration and now resides in California with her fiancé.

Ms. Rakes participated in our opening webinar panel: “Self-Advocacy On & Beyond Campus”, addressing the topic of ‘Extra-Curricular Self-Advocacy.’  She then led the participants in movement exercises and facilitated small group discussions, ‘Self-Advocacy 201: How to Self-Advocate in Extra-Curricular Settings.’

Rebecca Gross headshot

Rebecca Gross was first diagnosed with a variety of learning disabilities, at the age of eight, and transferred to several different mainstream day schools before eventually studying in a specialized school for learning disabilities.  With appropriate accommodations, Ms. Gross graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2017 with a BA in Liberal Arts concentrating in Theater, Disability Studies, and Education. She was one of the leaders of the Sarah Lawrence Disability Alliance (SLCDA) an organization focusing on addressing issues of disability rights and accessibility on campus and in the surrounding community.  In this role, she led weekly meetings giving students with disabilities a platform to support one and other and planned events and publications aimed at highlighting the perspective of disabled students and disability rights in general for the wider student body.  As a leader of this organization she also acted as a student representative on the administration’s Ad Hoc Accessibility Committee and contributed ideas and research to the architectural design team for a new student center which is set to be completed later in 2019. Currently, Ms. Gross tutors students with disabilities and works with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Ms. Gross is working towards a Master’s Degree in Disability Studies from the CUNY School of Professional Studies and is pursuing a career in disability advocacy.  She is passionate about providing students with disabilities with practical self-advocacy skills so that that they can find success in their desired field.

Ms. Gross participated in our opening webinar panel: “Self-Advocacy On & Beyond Campus”,addressing the topic of ‘Inclusive Grassroots Organizing.’  She then co-facilitated small group discussions, ‘Campus-Wide Advocacy 401: How to Broaden Inclusive Advocacy on Campus through Grassroots Organization.’ This was co-led with Candace Cable of RespectAbility.

Valora Blackson smilingValora Blackson, Director of The Center for Career Preparation and Partnerships for Guttman Community College, is an innovative thinker, visionary leader, and dynamic career coach. She joined the Guttman team in 2015 and has strategic oversight for Partner Relations with the primary goal of developing industry partnerships for experiential, workforce, and career preparation opportunities for the Guttman student population. Ms. Blackson holds degrees from Medaille College and the Ohio State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Postsecondary Education and Adult Learning. Ms. Blackson has held past Board positions with the Staten Island Arts Council, the American Association of University Women, and the New York City Employment and Training Coalition.

Ms. Blackson facilitated the small group discussions, Community-wide Advocacy 501: How to Broaden Inclusive Advocacy Beyond Campus.

Candace Cable smilingCandace Cable is a Public Policy/Employment Fellow in RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program for Spring of 2019. Cable’s involvement in sports after a spinal cord injury in 1975 at the age of 21 gave her renewed health, the ability to socially re-engage and a purpose in life. After her 27-year Paralympic athletic career, she uses this platform to effect positive global cohesive change for people with disabilities through her disability education training, consulting, writing, volunteering and speaking.

Ms. Cable co-facilitated ‘Campus-Wide Advocacy 401: How to Broaden Inclusive Advocacy on Campus through Grassroots Organization.’

Kristopher Robinson looking at another person (not pictured) in the middle of conversationKristopher (Kris) Robinson is the Neurodiversity Specialist and Student LEADS Support for Guttman Community College of CUNY’s AccessABILITY Services Program. With a Master of Education Degree from Baruch College in Higher Education / Administration, Mr. Robinson has extensive experience in counseling and student support in higher education.  He is a dedicated inclusion and equitable access advocate intent on facilitating student achievement. Prior to his current position, Mr. Robinson worked at Pace University in its Office of Disability Services; and for the School of Visual Arts’ Office of Disability Services. Mr. Robinson played a critical role in supporting this event and the other four events graciously hosted by Guttman Community College.

Mr. Robinson facilitated a small group discussion, Men-as-Allies.

Debbie Fink smiling in front of a buildingDebbie Fink is the Director of Community Outreach and Impact for RespectAbility, and was the Project Director of this unprecedented Women’s Disability Leadership, Inclusion & Advocacy Series. She brings more than 15 years of diverse leadership experience in public health, education and arts programming to serve RespectAbility’s mission. She brings more than 15 years of diverse leadership experience in public health, education and arts programming to serve RespectAbility’s mission. Ms. Fink has a lifetime commitment to enabling people with disabilities to have a better future and is passionate about the constructive impact volunteers can make in the world.

Ms. Fink managed the overall event; facilitated the empowerment exercise activities; and piloted her inaugural Self-Expression Graffiti Wall concept.


Guttman Community College LogoThis event was generously hosted by CUNY’s Guttman Community College, and was in collaboration with multiple organizations and agencies throughout the city including Guttman’s Office of AccessABILITY Services, Guttman’s Center for Career Preparation and Partnerships, DemocracyNYC, Girls for Gender Equity, Hunter College, and L.O.V.E. Mentoring.

This project was made possible by the generous support of the New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF) and the Coca-Cola Foundation.

Meet the Author

Debbie Fink

Debbie Fink was the Director of Community Outreach & Impact for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

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