Breaking Barriers

Breaking Barriers

5/8/24, 10:14 AM
Pamela Farron

Campus Life Spotlight

Pam Farron

Breaking Barriers

my Advocacy

During spring 2023, BCC Coordinator of Disability Services Pam Farron was watching a documentary film called Normal Isn't Real: Succeeding with Learning Disabilities and ADHD, which features actors and actresses openly talking about their disabilities and ways they have coped with them in the workplace. She had an "aha" moment.

"The film was made to help break the myth, to demystify disabilities," Pam says. "I reached out to them and asked if I could use it, but there were a lot of rules."

Undeterred, she decided to do her own version. She made a plan to talk to BCC faculty, staff and alums with documented disabilities.

My idea was to have them make videos, which I would help them with, and then share the videos with the entire campus. I wanted them to talk about their education, their careers, how they navigate their workplace, their successes and failures. It became my brainchild.

A total of 13 videos were recorded and shared with the BCC community via email, which also included links to more information on the disability of the person featured in the video. The raw, uncut videos were designed not for their production value, but for their relatable, real content.

"It's been very well received," Pam says. "When the videos go out, I get emails from faculty and staff and students that say, 'Oh my god, that's my story!'"

A passionate student advocate, Pam serves about 300 students with disabilities per year, and she predicts that number will grow as the enrollment population changes. For example, the MassReconnect program has already created an increase in students ages 25 and over, and there has also been an increase in immigrant students, for whom English is not their primary language. Disabilities range from anxiety, depression and ADHD to blindness, deafness or limited mobility.

When Pam began releasing the videos, she saw a direct impact.

"One of our professors is working with a student with ADHD and anxiety who had been struggling in her class. This professor saw my video and asked if I would meet with her student," recalls Pam, who has ADHD herself. "When we met, the student asked so many questions, like, 'Do you ever feel like this? Does your medication do this? Do you have trouble getting motivated? What do you do about it?' At the end, she hugged me. She walked away smiling."

The first person to submit a video was Frederic MacDonald-Dennis, former director of TRIO at BCC, who has ADHD and a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD).

Because ADHD can make it difficult to focus and pay attention, Frederic says he employs certain techniques to help him focus.

"I have learned to properly focus on things by learning to pause, and then to breathe, and proceed," he says in his video. He also uses meditation and classical music, which he notes has been specifically shown to help people with ADHD to focus.

Frederic describes his NVLD as "more of an executive functioning disorder" that can make spatial awareness and organization difficult. "What I have been able to do with this is to organize my time, so I know exactly what I'm going to be doing and when," he says. "I utilize lists. I prioritize."

These coping techniques, in addition to the support he received at BCC, allowed Frederic to succeed in his role in TRIO.

"I want you to know that you also can be successful if you persevere and utilize the many resources on campus that are here to support you," he advises.

Breaking Barriers video participants

Breaking Barriers video participants

BCC alum Paul Johansen, a masters-level biostatistician, earned an associate degree in criminal justice in 2012. That eventually led to him becoming an adjunct faculty member in the math department at BCC, where he has taught for over 10 years.

"My issue that I've struggled with at various times is depression," says Paul, whose video describes two particularly difficult times in his life. First, he dropped out of med school.

"That was pretty depressing. To have a life plan that you have lived with disappear and disintegrate, and not know what the substitute plan is, is pretty stressful," he says.

The second difficult period was after he got divorced. He credits his "very strong support system," including a group of friends and a supportive family, with helping through tough times.

"I also have had many therapists over my lifetime, and they also helped me very much," Paul says. "So if you are struggling and have never seen a therapist, I strongly encourage you to look in that direction."

But Paul says he doesn't let his depression define him.

"I try to rely on the things that I do enjoy. I play violin. I do photography. Those things give me joy, and focusing on what makes me happy has been helpful over the years," he says. "I encourage you to do that."

Jess Levy is a middle school science teacher in the Pittsfield public schools. She graduated from BCC in 2019 with an associate degree in biological science and went on to complete her bachelor's degree at Westfield State University.

"Somehow, I graduated salutatorian of my class at BCC, which was an amazing honor. It took a lot of work for me to get that, because I have ADHD," Jess says in her video. "People don't always see it in me, but I always see it in me. I always feel it in me."

But despite the difficulties Jess has experienced, she figured out how to make her way through the educational system and still finds ways to work with her disability.

"Because I was able to do it, I felt really passionately that I had to use that experience to help other people figure out how to make their way through the educational system," she says, explaining that it wasn't until she got to BCC that she truly found the "amazing" support system she needed to succeed.

Still, having ADHD means constantly pivoting to cope with school or work.

"When I went through my undergrad at Westfield during the pandemic, I was kind of left to my own devices, and I had to figure out a lot of executive function tools that I just didn't have beforehand," she says. "I'm still learning those tools every day."

As a middle school teacher, Jess shares her coping skills with her students. "They see that I'm human and that I have struggles, and I support them in theirs, so we work together," she says.

At the conclusion of her video, Jess provides a motivational message to people with ADHD.

"I just want people to know that a disability is not a reason to not pursue your dreams," she says. "It's a reason to push harder, because we can totally do it."

On April 17, 2024, participants in the project were invited to a luncheon and wore specially designed t-shirts featuring the disability flag. The event was followed by a meet-and-greet with students, faculty and staff.

I plan to do this project every year. Who knows — this could become a model for community colleges across the country.

View all the videos in the Breaking Barriers series.