Support System: How UCF Students with Disabilities Find Their Passion

Jonathan Trufant (right) and former UCF men’s basketball player Anthony Catotti at Addition Financial Arena.

The UCF men’s basketball team was ready to play the biggest game in school history. But first, head coach Johnny Dawkins looked over to student manager Jonathan Trufant.

“Jonathan, what do you have to say?” asked the college hoops legend, looking for an assessment of the team’s final practice before flying to South Carolina for the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Trufant, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, does not stand eye to eye with the giants on the team, but refuses to let that hamper his big personality.

“I thought that was a four, four-and-a-half …” said Trufant, starting to rank the hard-fought practice on the Knights’ grading scale, “or five.”

When Trufant hit the final digit, he let the players know they put in a championship-level effort – a grade they had yet to achieve that year. The team erupted in celebration and ran toward the Addition Financial Arena locker room, ready to fly north for the school’s first at-large tournament appearance. 

“The coaches were looking at me like, ‘Good job, Jonathan, we needed that one,'” he says.

Trufant, now in his final semester, is one of many UCF students who have some form of disability, and despite being a self-proclaimed extrovert he struggled to create lasting connections early on.

“Outside of my immediate family, this is the first time that I’ve felt truly a part of a family,” says Trufant. “Frankly, if I hadn’t been a part of the basketball team, I would be in a very different place emotionally and spiritually than I am now. And if I didn’t have the money from the Johnson Scholarship, then I wouldn’t be here.”

Trufant receives financial aid through the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, which supports students with disabilities through Student Accessibility Services. The extra funding allowed Trufant to pursue the volunteer student manager position with UCF basketball and bolster his resume as he pursues graduate school to study psychology. 

“The Johnson Scholarship helped me not to worry about finances as much and allowed me the flexibility to pursue my passions,” he says. “I love being able to work with the basketball team. If I had to worry about how I was going to be able to pay for classes, I wouldn’t be able to do that. That’s really fulfilling for me.”

For UCF Day of Giving (postponed; date to be determined), the Johnson Scholarship Foundation upped its commitment to helping students like Trufant, matching all gifts in support of the Students with Disabilities Scholarship Fund dollar-for-dollar up to $21,850. 

Trufant is just one example among many students who have been impacted by this philanthropic support. And scholarships are just one aspect of what SAS offers.

SAS connected with 2,445 students, administered 5,006 tests, captioned 512 videos and serviced 15 classes with an American Sign Language interpreter in 2019, while providing many other resources. And SAS does it all with a total staff of 37 people.

Student Accessibility Services assisted 2,000-plus students last year and administered more than 5,000 tests. Photo by Nick Leyva ’15

“These services are the cornerstone of having diversity and being inclusive of people who learn in different ways,” says Pamela Thomas, an instructor in the Department of Biology. “Without those types of services, we would fail in that mission of the university.”

Thomas teaches Biology I, a foundational course that receives a large volume of students each semester.

“At any given time, SAS could have 200 to 250 students from our classes that go there for the extended testing time,” says Thomas. “They do so much, it’s really amazing what they do. And they do it with so few resources.”

SAS provides a wide range of services from testing accommodation to mentorship to workforce preparation. Qualifying disabilities can be physical or mental, representing a wide range. And the number of students seeking assistance increases each year.

“These services make school a significantly less stressful environment for a great number of students,” says Bryce Everett, a freshman who receives testing accommodations due to Asperger’s Syndrome and anxiety disorder. “I’m able to be a part of the classroom environment, obtaining the full experience without undue stress. These services are very important for college students; we’re often living on our own for the very first time.”

As UCF strives to create an inclusive and diverse learning environment, SAS plays a critical role.

“People with disabilities are already a marginalized community,” says Trufant. “To have that resource where we can seek out support goes a long way toward helping people with disabilities become ingratiated in the UCF community, and I really appreciate it.”

To support students like Trufant and Everett, considering making a gift to the Students with Disabilities Scholarship Fund and receiving a dollar-for-dollar match up to $21,850 on UCF Day of Giving (postponed; date to be determined)​.

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