William Paterson University Senior Barbara Zablotney Leverages Experience with Physical Disability to Create Positive Change

At age 36, community advocate hopes to use bachelor’s degree in disability studies as gateway to additional success

Barbara Zablotney ‘23

Zablotney tours the WP campus

When Barbara Zablotney ’23 received an acceptance packet from William Paterson University and saw its message—Will. Power.—printed across the front, she knew she had found the right place.

Fifteen years ago, when she was 21 years old, Zablotney was in a serious car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Zablotney spent five years working hard at physical rehabilitation, convinced she’d defy science and walk again, but gained little movement in her legs.

After a subsequent battle with depression, Zablotney decided to work on bettering herself and the world around her. She began to engage in community service in her rural hometown of Windber, Pennsylvania, which led her to an organization for full-time wheelchair users. With that, Zablotney found her spark and took off on a fast-track of service, advocacy, and now: education. 

In May, the 4.0 student, at age 36, will proudly push herself across the Commencement stage to celebrate her bachelor’s degree in disability studies.

In 2018, the same year she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania, Zablotney received a bronze-level Presidential Volunteer Service Award from the White House. She had been busy all year leveraging her pageant title to advocate for people with physical disabilities statewide.

She has since taken on numerous leadership positions with many non-profit organizations for people with disabilities, became co-founder and president of the South-Central Pennsylvania Chapter of United Spinal Association, and earned the silver, gold, and lifetime achievement levels of the Presidential Service Award.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize they have the ability to make an impact, even if their act feels small,” Zablotney says.

Having a college degree, she adds, will help her have a bigger impact yet.

She learned about William Paterson University’s bachelor’s degree in disability studies—one of a few such degree programs in the nation—during a 2019 service opportunity at The Abilities Expo in Edison, New Jersey. The disability studies program offers courses in multiple formats including fully online (both synchronous and asynchronous) and in-person to make the program accessible for many different students and faculty.

Zablotney, who lives six hours away from the University campus, went fully online for her courses.

She was accepted to WP as a junior transfer student thanks both to the academic credit she earned before her accident, when she was pursuing an associate degree as a veterinary technician, as well as academic credit WP granted for her experience running non-profit organizations. 

Through William Paterson University’s Center for Degree Completion and Adult Learning (DCAL), adult learners can receive academic credit for prior learning that ranges from job experience, professional licenses and certifications, time in the military, corporate training or workshops, and more. “Such credit, recognizing the valuable subject matter expertise that adult learners like Barbara already possess, can help them expedite their degree, save money, and gain confidence in their abilities,” says Johanna Prado, DCAL Director.

Moreover, thanks to a WellCare New Jersey Impact grant, adult learners from historically underrepresented populations—such as Zablotney—can receive financial assistance to complete their degrees at William Paterson, Prado adds.

A recent inductee into the Alpha Sigma Lambda honor society for adult learners in continuing higher education, Zablotney says she learned a great deal in WP’s disability studies program despite her years of experience in that sector.

In describing the biggest takeaways from each of her current slate of courses (Anthropology of Inequality, Disability in a Global Society, Disability in Media and Literature, Ethical Issues in Disability Studies, Philosophy of Justice, and Politics of Disability), Zablotney continues, “Learning, for example, about social justice as it pertains to black, brown, and indigenous folks who may have a disability, and the intersectionality of those experiences—I hadn’t thought about all the different ways everyday actions or inactions can impact them.”

As Zablotney learned at William Paterson, she also had a positive effect on her classmates and made an impact on her professors and the institution, overall, according to disability studies program director and professor Pamela Brillante, PhD, who serves as Zablotney’s academic advisor.

“While sharing her story with her classmates has been instrumental in their learning, it has been Barb’s tenacity in working with the institution as a whole—increasing all of our awareness of what it truly means to be accessible and to be able to participate in your own higher education—that will make lasting change here at William Paterson University,” says Brillante, who earned both her bachelors and master’s degree from WP. “I am eternally grateful for what she has brought to the disability studies program and to our institution.”

Zablotney plans to pursue a master’s degree in disability studies and is considering future careers in politics, “whether it be advising a politician on bills, the wording in them, and helping people with disabilities through policy,” or starting her own business to educate healthcare practitioners on how to positively treat patients with disabilities.

“When the time comes, when the opportunity comes” she says, harkening back to her acceptance packet from William Paterson, “I’ll know.”