Disability helps specialist relate

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers

Instead of settling into retirement and putting up his feet after 26 years in the Air Force, John Prater headed to the college classroom.
However, somewhere along the way he began to suffer the effects of memory loss brought on by a chemical imbalance in his brain.

Extensive time at a veterans hospital, disability programs at Clovis Community College and restructuring the way he had always done things helped the former master sergeant from Alabama to cope with the affliction.

“I live by a very rigid routine every day, and that’s one of the ways people with disabilities function best,” said Prater, who served two tours in Vietnam before retiring at Cannon Air Force Base.

Prater overcame his disability to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Now he is an outreach specialist for disability services at Eastern New Mexico University, where he conducts study sessions and coordinates testing and a variety of other services.

He said the fact he is disabled helps him inspire other disabled students seeking higher education.

“Everyone that I work with knows it and that’s my key to opening up their minds. I look them in the eye and say, ‘I know what you’re dealing with. I deal with it, too.’ And you see that barrier going down,” he said.

Prater and the people in his department address a variety of disabilities from physical to learning disorders.

Often disabilities require different levels of accommodation, he said. A person suffering from an attention deficit disorder, for instance, may need a distraction-free environment in which to take tests, whereas another student may need to have test materials read to them, Prater explained.

“You really (have to) get into their heads,” he said, explaining how working with disabled students has sparked fatherly sentiments. “It’s not that they can’t learn. They just learn differently. They have brilliant minds. We just have to put the resources in place that help.”

ENMU disability services program director Bernita Davis met Prater at CCC where she worked with disabled students and he was enrolled as a student. She took a position at ENMU, where he transferred to earn his bachelor’s degree, and worked his way from a work-study program in her department nine years ago to a full-time position in 2002.

“He’s my hands — my right and left hands. This program wouldn’t be what it is without him,” Davis said.

Prater’s experiences in the military as well as in his pursuit of higher education have given him an invaluable edge in working with disabled students, she believes.

“Most of them (students) relate very well when they know that he’s struggled,” she said.

Prater said every day brings the reward of seeing people overcome challenges.

“I enjoyed every day of my 26 years (in the military), and I don’t regret my career in the military for one second. I would still be in if I hadn’t gotten too old,” he said.

“I am a very spiritual person. I always have been, but I don’t think there is anything in life more fulfilling than being able to help people and participating in trying to help the younger people get their feet under them.”

“I received my draft notice and pleaded with them to let me enlist in the Air Force, and they did. I had a cousin in the Air Force who wrote me a letter, and he said, ‘If they get you, go Air Force,’ and I listened to him,” he said.

“I don’t regret a one of my years here (in Clovis). When I put in my dream sheet on my second tour, I put in one base — Cannon. We came back here in January 1983 and stayed to retire.”