What started out as a serene kickback soon turned into a lively jam session with over 40 guests attending the fourth Annual Ability Ball. Although attendees didn’t show up in formal attire and glass slippers, they certainly brought their communal enthusiasm as they cheered for the performers onstage. The scent of freshly brewed coffee suffused the Barn as students, parents and faculty eagerly took their seats under the dim but cozy spotlight last Thursday night.
For those who haven’t attended the Ability Ball in the past three years, some may not understand the significance of this heartwarming event. I had the privilege of talking with the current president of the Student Disability Union (SDU), Kushal Sonawala, right before he opened the show and revealed the rather underappreciated but venerable society of disabled students at UCR. The SDU, founded in 2008, has always strived to bring awareness to the well-being of disabled students on campus. The yearning for more student participation inspired Terrance Stewart, former president of SDU. He created the first-ever Ability Ball back in 2011 in hopes that this free-form talent show would bring together those with disabilities and those without. As a graduate student studying higher education, Stewart emceed the event with his charismatic charm and spontaneous humor, making the transitions between performances just as exciting as the acts themselves.
Sonawala kicked off the ball with his very own solo demonstration on the trumpet. Emotions were hard to ignore, as Sonawala stood on stage and said with an effervescent smile, “it feels like you’re back in the days of high school with the glory and the limelight. And you look out to the audience and see the people who care for you. Coming into college, it’s difficult to replicate that feeling of appreciation and kindness.” Sonawala undoubtedly replicated that encouraging feeling when the audience members clapped.
Shortly after Sonawala’s crowd-pleasing opening act, a series of gifted vocalists, musicians and dancers illuminated the stage. Second-year business student Ethan Chen along with the a cappella ensemble Not So Sharp both performed original versions of mainstream songs such as Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and Ed Sheeran’s ballad “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” Some eager audience members sang with Chen as if they were backup vocals echoing his choruses, while others simply bobbed their heads to the beat of the bass.
Although the Ability Ball highlights the admirable talents of both disabled and non-disabled students of UCR, the underlying purpose of hosting such an event is much more profound. Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Sandoval sat in the back of the crowd smiling as he watched Adam Daniels perform a captivating glow stick routine. Without any hesitation Sandoval said, “Many people don’t know we have so many students with disabilities and frankly their talent just blows me away. It’s important to welcome these students into the broader campus community, especially those whose disabilities are initially unapparent. We’ve always had a student disabilities program here at UCR and the strength of it is really the strength of our students themselves. It’s great to see them take an initiative to make their mark.” SDU is essentially using the Ability Ball as a launching pad for the promotion of an all-inclusive campus environment that allows them to reach their maximum potential both academically and socially.
The Union’s mission is simple but hard to execute without any additional support from Highlanders themselves. Sonawala’s main goal is to increase the awareness of disabled students both on and off campus. “I try to reach out to as many service, professional and department organizations as I can. The Inland Empire is a vital but underutilized resource and I’m hoping that off-campus businesses can also contribute to the cause. Disability is a problem at any school and at any place,” he said.
In addition to the ongoing outreach to off-campus organizations, SDU managed to gain the support and volunteerism of other clubs on campus such as Circle K International, UTouch and Best Buddies, whose members devoted their time and effort to help set up the Barn for the Ability Ball.
Assistant Vice Chancellor Susan Allen Ortega, who has attended two annual Ability Balls said, “It brings together students with disabilities to really celebrate their talent and have us all see students in their complexity and their riches. This year in particular, the network of people beyond the SDU that are here to support is truly amazing.”
The ultimate goal to expand SDU and redefine disability is slowly becoming a reality; we are able to see the things disabled students can do and not the things they can’t. As Sonawala put it, “They gave it their all tonight, not only students with disabilities but also their allies.” The all-inclusive environment SDU stands for is already in the works.