Friday, May 7, 2010

Chronic Illness & The Arts: Sixth Annual Chronic Illness Symposium

On Wednesday May 12th, Erasing the Distance will perform at DePaul University as part of their sixth annual Chronic Illness Symposium! This year's theme for the symposium is how the arts can help people cope with and understand chronic illness.

The only program of its kind in the United States, the DePaul University's Chronic Illness Initiative provides students with the assistance they need to manage school while struggling with debilitating illnesses, relapses and hospitalizations.

Today, Communications Director Oriana Fowler spoke with Lynn Royster, Director of the Chronic Illiness Initiative at DePaul (pictured below).

Oriana: Hi Lynn. Thanks for talking with me today.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your role as Director of the Chronic Illness Initiative at DePaul?

Lynn Royster: I started the program in 2003. I went to the Dean and asked her if we could do something for people with chronic illness, and she let me go ahead. The program has just grown since then. In October 2003, I had the opportunity to apply for a grant. Even though we didn't get the grant, it was kind of a gift because I had to lay out the whole program as part of the application.

The purpose behind the program is to serve students who aren't getting served anywhere else, because these students don't fit into other disability models.  People with an illness have constantly changing situations. They may be fine one week and not the next. Their symptoms may change. The fact that they are ill means that at no time do they live the normal life of a student. It requires a different attitude and different accommodations. People with chronic illness are a very large percentage of the people who are disabled, as well, such as some students with MS or diabetes.

You mentioned MS and diabetes -- what are some other chronic illnesses?

Chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, depression, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis... There are many. But the issues are similar, where people have been ignored or disbelieved. For example, a student may look normal but not show up for class for a couple weeks, and when they do the professor thinks they are just blowing off class. A lot of them have issues with tiredness, or hospitalization. Some professors are happy to work with us, and others find it difficult and prefer to keep a more traditional approach.

How did this years theme "Chronic Illness & the Arts" come up? What have some themes been in previous years of the symposium?

It just came right out of my head one day! (laughs) I think the first year the theme was Understanding the Life of the Student with Chronic Illness. Last year the symposium was about employment. The first one, there was a woman [Maureen Pratt] who wrote a book named "Peace in the Storm," and she came to speak at the event. It was a small group, and its grown each year since then.

How did you find out about Erasing the Distance? 

About 2 or 3 years ago, Brighid was at a meeting at SNL [School for New Learning at DePaul]. We heard her talk and we thought, "We have some overlaps here, maybe we can do something together." So we talked then and couldn't quite figure out how to work together. Then I saw Erasing the Distance perform 2 years ago and immediately thought of Erasing the Distance this year with the theme of the arts.

What is the last day that people can register to attend the symposium?

It would be terrific for people to register in advance, but you can register at the door. There are waivers available for people who can't afford the cost. Email me for a waiver [].

We'd love to have more people join us. The more that faculty, student and staff learn about chronic illness the more they can support these students. 

Most people reading this probably know people with chronic illness, and just don't know that they do because of the stigma. As people's understanding grows, more people will be comfortable talking about it. Please join us! There will be opportunities for dialogue and much more.

The symposium will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the third floor of the DePaul Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago, on Wednesday May 12th.

Open to the public, admission is $25 and includes lunch and a reception; attendees are encouraged to register in advance to help the organizers plan accordingly. As part of the day's events, Erasing the Distance will perform at 3:45 pm. Theatre artist Michael Rohd will deliver the keynote address.

Register by emailing Lynn Royster at

For complete program details, visit

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