Doctoral candidate working to elevate unheard voices

April 21, 2023

valerie sobol in a black dress and white graduation stole stands on stage for the occupational therapy ceremony with professor honoring her

Valerie Sobol ’20, DOT ’23, is in the first graduating class of Quinnipiac’s entry-level doctor of occupational therapy program. For her, this program created a new perspective when it came to the people and communities she was already working with.

Her capstone project is based around individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and how they lose many of the services they rely on when they reach adulthood. This leads to uncertainty for these individuals and their parents, who often find themselves worrying about their children growing up, instead of celebrating their accomplishments.

Sobol’s project allows her to observe and interact with Best Buddies participants in a social setting, while she is looking for a better understanding of the transition to the Best Buddies adult citizen program.

Best Buddies helps foster friendships, leadership and employment opportunities for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and has been a member since she was an undergraduate, Sobol knows how important this organization is for allowing individuals to make authentic friendships as teenagers and adults.

Throughout her occupational therapy courses, Sobol found herself learning about various services and support systems for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Many of these end once they reach adulthood, which she witnessed first-hand in Best Buddies. Her research also includes the parents of those in the program, as she believes these parents are deeply affected by this change in support as well.

“These parents feel everything that their child goes through. If their child is excluded from a social activity, they are also excluded from the community. Every parent just wants their child to be included, no matter what their ability is,” Sobol said.

This passion for helping elevate issues that individuals with IDDs face started in high school. Sobol’s best friend has a brother with autism and seeing the world from his perspective has helped her understand how misunderstood the IDD population is. She witnessed exclusion and social rejection. Sobol explains, “we all want to have friends and people who support us. Why should that be any different for someone with a disability?”

As an occupational therapy student, she chose an internship at a pediatric therapy office. Her work involved helping individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities learn how to confidently interact with the world around them through engaging activities. She’s also worked for a non-profit focused on building confidence in young people who have found themselves excluded for their intellectual and developmental disabilities. Choreographing performances and being a peer mentor, Sobol wanted to ensure that every child got their moment in the spotlight.

Her classes taught her to look deeper into the world around her and never stop advocating when something isn’t fair. She’s taking this new understanding of social justice into her career with the hope to advocate for her future clients.

All of Sobol’s hard work comes from a passion to make a difference and change things she finds unjust. She enjoys working with and learning about different people and their lives, creating a better understanding of the world to bring into her future as a doctor of occupational therapy.

Her academic career has brought her closer to a community she was already involved in, and this connection has made her even more passionate. Occupational therapy has encouraged an understanding of each person as part of whole, their lives, their family and their community all come together to create a person’s experiences.

“This community is the most inclusive and welcoming community that I’ve ever been a part of. I feel comfortable being myself but I know I’ll be accepted for who I am. And that’s what everyone wants,” she explains. “Occupational therapy gave me a new lens to look at the world with and that’s how I created this project.”

Her classes have taught her new ways to advocate for those unseen by the general public, which is her goal for this capstone project.

Sobol wants to encourage people to welcome them into spaces they’ve been excluded from. As her capstone project states, “everything starts with them. I want to lift their voices and show how alike we all really are. We all want the same things in life — to have a social life, to have friends, and to feel like you belong.”

If there’s something she’d like people to learn from her capstone, it’s how to make a difference for the people around you, regardless of ability.

“Making a change for an inclusive world starts with each person making an effort to be better every day. Reach out to someone you don’t always talk to. Go get coffee with someone you don’t normally hang out with. You’ll be surprised at how much you might have in common," she said.

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