David Sanfilippo started working with disabled students when he was 16 years old. In his job as a teacher’s aide at his high school, he helped his differently-abled peers tie their shoes and feed themselves. This was when he realized his calling to help those with different needs
“I can’t help but enjoy what I’ve done,” Sanfilippo said.
After working at Cal State Long Beach for 40 years, he will retire from his role as the director of Disabled Student Services in June to finish working on his book “Where I Sit.” He has helped students who struggle with both physical and mental disabilities.
“You may think, ‘I’m not on a wheelchair, nor blind, nor deaf, I don’t have a real disability.’ That’s not true,” Sanfilippo said. “It can be [just] as debilitating if you have a learning disability.””
One of the students Sanfilippo helped during his career was the university’s former football player, Mark Seay in 1989.
After suffering from major injuries in a drive-by shooting where a bullet pierced through his pelvis, the university declared that Seay would not be be able to play football anymore. This seemingly put an end to his career. According to Sanfilippo, no one could believe it when Seay moved on to play for the NFL years later, except him.
“After having gone through the trauma of being shot, he realized the mental games they try to play in the NFL didn’t break him down,” Sanfilippo said. “What people perceived as difficult or tragic can be used to determine who we are, depending on how we go about it.”
Seay is one of many students Sanfilippo has helped rehabilitate in his lengthy career at the university.
One of Disabled Student Services’ first efforts under Sanfilippo was to make the campus accessible for disabled students by making renovations in the parking lots and classrooms in the late 1970s.
“His job is to remove barriers associated with many disabilities so our students can succeed,” said President Jane Close Conoley. “He helps with every aspect of accommodations for learning disabilities, visual issues and wheelchair access.”
One of the major accomplishments of Sanfilippo’s program was installing ramps for the commencement ceremony, so students with wheelchairs could access the stage.
Due to the change in location for the spring commencement ceremony, one of Sanfilippo’s last efforts will be to make the intramural fields a more accessible zone for graduating students and their families.
“We are asking them to put pathways, so that people in wheelchairs can access the stage safer and easier on the grassy field,” Sanfilippo said.
He stated that the disability center is a safe place for anyone dealing with an issue, regardless of how minor it may appear.
“Walking inside our office is the hardest part [for students],” Sanfilippo said. “Faculty members are the most important when it comes to noticing a student with disabilities. If they notice student[s] struggling or depressed, [faculty bring them] into the program to get the help they need.”
He said there are many developed components to his program, such as providing sign language interpreters for deaf students and accessible materials for blind students.
This year, Disabled Student Services is celebrating its 45th anniversary with the Night of 10,000 Stars. The event is named after the number of students who have taken part in Sanfilippo’s program and graduated.
“I [help] students right now that have cancer, [are] waiting for kidney transplants or liver transplants and are going to school,” he said. “I don’t like to use the word inspiration, I prefer to use the term grit. Grit is the ability to push through things and a majority of my students have grit.”
Christiana Koch, commissioner of disability affairs, praised Sanfilippo for his work with Disabled Student Services.
“Dave has a reputation for talking a lot, but that is because he has so much to say!” Koch said. “His stories are rarely about him, but mostly about students that he is proud of who have passed through DSS and onto great professional achievements.”
Writing and finishing his book is one of Sanfilippo’s goals after he retires. The book will cover topics about disabilities and the “grit” that is cultivated through them. It will include stories of students he’s helped to graduate and moved on to be lawyers, doctors and nurses.
Sanfilippo wants to be remembered as a man who served his students well and helped them be recognized for their abilities rather than their disabilities.