Beyond the Chair
Grand Valley State University senior and journalism major talks about life in a wheelchair, and her journey on the road as Miss Wheelchair Michigan.
Sure, college brings about challenges for all of us. For some, those obstacles may come in the form of finances time management or their academic studies. As a college student with a disability, my biggest transition has been dealing with matters of accessibility.
Thankfully, Grand Valley State University has done an exceptional job at making the campus wheelchair friendly. Still, accessibility is and will continue to be an every day battle.
Given that one of my goals throughout my reign as Ms. Wheelchair Michigan is to raise awareness about creating an inclusive and accessible environment, I thought I would shed some light on some of daily things that a person in wheelchair, on college campus, must learn to roll with.
I mean, what is a person to do when they have a presentation on the second floor of Lake Superior Hall and minutes before class discover that the elevator is out of commission? You could scope out the scene and see if anyone is willing to carry you upstairs. More than likely though, you’re going to have to make a frantic call to your professor.
Or what is a person to do when they are zooming down a hill and all of the sudden a fellow student cuts in front of them? Do they choose to slam on their brakes and crash into a crowd of people or veer off to side and risk flying out of their wheelchair? Either way it isn’t going to end pretty.
My advice for those on campus in the future is let people wheelchairs enjoy their downhill rides because they don’t come along often enough.
While it is true daily adventures in a wheelchair can create a blooper show, these matters are serious. Let’s face it, unless you have been put in a situation where you have had to adapt to life in a wheelchair or any disability, you don’t always think about how inconvenient cracks in the side walk may be. Nor do you think about how blocking a ramp into a building with your bicycle probably isn’t such a good idea.
On the surface some of these issues may appear to be small, but they certainly do add up. As my last semester as an undergrad at GVSU winds down, I have taken a lot of time to reflect and appreciate the campus environment. If there’s one thing that I have learned about accessibility throughout my time here, it’s that we all, myself included, should take a step back and evaluate how our actions impact other people. Are we creating an inclusive campus or are we creating more obstacles for our peers?
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012
It always strikes me when people have a question yet hesitate to ask it.
In my opinion, questions are a good thing. They create a better understanding about our world and the people we come in contact with on a daily basis. Still, for some reason, many of us are too afraid to satisfy our curiosity because we don’t want to sound unintelligent or create an awkward situation.
I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we think “I should have just kept my thoughts to myself…” Regardless, I think we can all agree that we learn a little something when we decide to speak up.
Throughout the month of October I will be discussing myths that people have about disabilities. My first has to do with curiosity and children but quite honestly it can and should be expanded to everyone, not just children. This week’s myth is: children should never ask people about their disabilities.
It’s quite common for people with disabilities to be out and about and hear parents say “shhhh” or “be quiet” when their children ask them questions about my disability or wheelchair.
Although I realize their intentions are good and a parent’s reactions are caused out of fear of offending someone with a disability, I wish people would just ask. A disability is a part of someone’s life. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Besides, isn’t it better for people to ask questions than wonder or assume?
One of the biggest attitudinal barriers facing people with disabilities is assumptions. Most of society is familiar with the image of a person in a wheelchair who is weak and dependent, but they are not familiar with a person who has a disability that is strong, active and functioning member of society.
In order for the image of a person with a disability to change, questions need to be asked. It’s okay to wonder why some of us move around on four wheels and it’s okay to ask how a person with a disability does daily tasks.
Truthfully, most people with disabilities are open about their lifestyle. When questions are asked, it gives those of who have a disability a chance to demonstrate that every disability is different in the same way that every person is different. We all have different strengths and weaknesses so a disability can affect each person in a different way. In the end, however, we have more similarities to person without a disability than differences.
As awkward as it may feel, you should want to know the truth. It is the truth, not assumptions that allow us understand, learn, form our own opinions and relate to those around us. It’s no secret, the more we are aware of our surroundings and our beliefs about disabilities, the more prepared we are to look beyond medical circumstances
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012
Contrary to Dori’s famous motto “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” in the movie Finding Nemo, I constantly find myself saying “just keep rolling, just keep rolling” when I encounter an uphill climb in life or on campus.
October is Disability Awareness Month. Technically, it’s Disability Employment Awareness Month, but most just use it as an opportunity to raise general awareness about disabilities. In order to raise awareness about disabilities and employment together, this October has been given the motto: a strong workforce is an inclusive workforce.
This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the National Forum on Disability Issues in Columbus, OH. where inclusion was a reoccurring theme. The Forum featured Ted Kennedy Jr. and Cathy McMorris Rodgers who both spoke about pressing issues impacting the millions of Americans with disabilities. Kennedy, who has specialized in disability law throughout the bulk of his career, and McMorris Rodgers who serves as a United States Representative in Congress and is the mother of a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, discussed programs and policies revolving around education, housing, employment and healthcare.
While sitting in the audience listening to two well-respected individuals speak about matters that directly affect my life, I couldn’t help but think shouldn’t we all be concerned with education, employment, healthcare and housing?
I realize they aren’t always glamorous, but they are vital to our survival.
Of course, when you combine disability with some of these topics it brings up whole new set of questions that need to be addressed. There are added elements of accessibility, medical challenges and the need to battle some of established perceptions society has about disabilities.
People with disabilities constitute the world’s largest minority group. In fact, one in five Americans are living with a disability. Given the prevalence of disabilities it makes the policies and programs designed to help those affected by them imperative.
Throughout the Forum, Kennedy and McMorris focused most of their efforts on an issue of concern for most of us on campus and across the country – employment. Although the population of people with disabilities continues to grow, it’s a common trend for people who have physical or cognitive disabilities to be the last to enter the workforce.
Kennedy even joked, people with disabilities are the only people he knows who, more often than not, are looking for ways to pay Uncle Sam. As sad as that is, in a lot of ways it is true.
Perhaps more importantly though, people with disabilities just want to be included and have opportunities to provide for themselves. As I work toward a bachelor’s degree and then onto my master’s it’s daunting to think about the uphill climb or roll, I guess you could say, that so many of us face in employment.
Regardless of the things that people with disabilities may struggle to do, I hope this month serves as opportunity to showcase our capabilities.
Throughout the month, in effort to increase disability awareness, I will be discussing a few myths that society has about disabilities.
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012
If there were ever four words that make people with disabilities cringe, they would come in the form of you are an inspiration.
I address these four words after making an appearance on GVTV’s student-produced show, INSPIRE, which will air Oct. 5 during GVTV’s premiere night on channel 10 throughout campus. Hosted by Grand Valley State University sophomore Sam Shields, INSPIRE profiles students and members of the GVSU community who have compelling stories to share. In so many cases a person with a disability is tabbed as inspirational. There are some instances where that association may be true, but it shouldn’t be automatic.
Let’s face it, it’s human nature for us to find inspiration from people who overcome adversity and achieve greatness. We all have that one person who has accomplished what we are striving toward or that one individual who has overcome that hurdle and still found a way to make it work. From them, we find courage, we are motivated, we remain optimistic and we continue to move ahead.
For people with disabilities though, daily routines are filled with barriers, challenges and adversity.
Every day life can include medical procedures, being out in public and having to consider if there is even a restroom you can maneuver into if you need one, or maybe it’s the extra time it takes to get dressed because you may not have the ability to stand up or the use of your upper-body extremities.
While it is true that a person with disability faces barriers regularly, the majority of people who have a disability raise the question why should I be considered an inspiration just for living my life?
Yes, there are plenty of obstacles that come along with having a disability, but it is also true that the rest of society faces its own set of hurdles. Besides, 99.9 percent of the time, the adversity people with disabilities face is not even considered an obstacle, it is simply a part of life.
Now, I don’t mind people finding inspiration from my actions. In fact, my hope is that I live my life in such a way that I give to others whenever I am capable and receive without forgetting to appreciate an act of kindness. It is my daily actions, not what I have accomplished with a disability that I want people to be inspired from.
The concept of inspiration may get tossed around a lot and may regularly get associated with people who are living with a disability, but shows like INSPIRE help convey the message that everyone has the capability to create inspiration through their actions. No matter who we are, where we come from or what we do, we all have a story to share.
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012.
Wheelchair. No, not that rickety, old black chair you see in hospitals, nursing homes or grocery stores. I’m talking about the one’s that are designed specifically for people to play basketball, rugby, and yes, dance or do other leisurely activities in.
This is America, a land where we are surrounded by opportunities, yet it is a place filled with stereotypes.
Think back to your high school. I bet, in the span of a couple minutes, you could list dozens of stereotypes.
Having a disability and using a wheelchair definitely brings with it its own set of labels. From my experiences, the majority of stereotypes facing people with disabilities stem from a lack of understanding and a level uncertainty on how to approach someone with a disability. Most people do not want to say something offensive so they don’t say anything at all.
Truthfully, though, curiosity is not a bad thing. After all, the similarities between people with and without disabilities outweigh the differences. Beyond the wheelchair or medical condition, they just want to enjoy life.
If there is one thing to know about wheelchairs and people who use them, it’s that a wheelchair may be a part of someone’s life, but the chair itself does not define their life. It’s a concept that may seem obvious to some, but if you’re not accustomed to interacting with someone who has a disability, you may not have had the chance to see them leading active lives.
With the Paralympics coming to a close this week, where the United States took home 98 total medals, I thought it would be the perfect time to shed some light on fascinating activities that you can do in wheelchairs.
And no, I don’t mean being able to park in the handicap spot, or being able to sit down all day. I’m talking about people who go hunting, drive motorcycles, play in bands and participate in sports.
Like the world of technology, the world of wheelchairs continues to evolve. No longer is it the case that the average wheelchair is the old, rickety, black chair you see in supermarkets. Instead, we live in a world where people in wheelchairs are able to enjoy almost any everyday activity that you can think of, including scuba diving, skiing and ball room dancing.
Throughout the course of my reign as Ms. Wheelchair Michigan, I have hosted and attended events that have given people the chance to use hand cycles, tennis wheelchairs, all-terrain wheelchairs, and adaptive motorcycles.
By presenting people of all abilities the opportunity to use some of the adaptive equipment available today, I hope to break down some of those labels and stereotypes that fill our world, focus on inclusion and give people the chance to have a little fun.
The way I see it, if you have four wheels beneath you every day, you might as well enjoy yourself!
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012
Funding. It’s a big issue for most us on campus. It’s not uncommon to see people pinching their pennies after buying the textbooks they need to make it through the semester.
For many disability-related organizations though, pinching pennies has a whole new dynamic.
A number of the programs put in place to help people with disabilities experience some of lives simplest activities such as playing sports or even gaining access to educational opportunities are provided by nonprofit organizations and numerous volunteers.
This past weekend was the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. The telethon, which was titled the MDA Show of Strength, was used to raise funds and awareness for people with various muscle diseases.
MDA is the nonprofit organization dedicated to curing Muscular Dystrophy, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and other related diseases that often cause weakness or loss of muscle tissue. Beyond the research, the Association provides people with neuromuscular conditions assistance when they are in need of medical equipment and it also puts on a summer camp for children affected these diseases.
Sitting there watching a telethon full of musical entertainment from stars like Carrie Underwood coupled with stories from people who are directly affected Muscular Dystrophy and other related diseases was a roller coaster ride full of emotions.
On one hand, I was elated because the Show of Strength gave society the opportunity to see people with disabilities who are intelligent and accomplished individuals.
However, it was also tough to watch because I see how important it is for people with disabilities to experience things like summer camp yet, somehow, funding programs like this is often a challenge.
A week-long camp may appear to be a simple thing to most of us in college, but it’s not. It allows kids time to just be a kid and take the focus off any medical challenges they may be facing, build friendships and learn.
As Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012 my goal is to help others with disabilities turn their dreams into goals and, frankly, that is would not be possible without disability-related organizations.
Over the course of my reign, I have worked with various nonprofit organizations such as Think Beyond the Chair, Disability Connection of West Michigan and Alternatives in Motion to help people with disabilities gain resources and build connections. It is those resources and connections that make setting and achieving goals a possibility.
I know every group, company and organization is going through has experienced some sort of financial struggles. However, knowing so many people with disabilities wouldn’t necessarily get the opportunity to go to summer camp, the beach, play sports, or even gain access to the medical supplies they need without these organizations makes it an issue worth talking about.
Like many of us, I wish money grew on trees. Not because I want a fancy car, but because there will always be a dire need for financial support and volunteers for organizations like the MDA.
Until then, I’ll keep plugging along trying spread awareness and give the next generation of people with disabilities more opportunities.
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012
As we start a new semester and the piles of homework begin to form, most of us are one step closer to obtaining a degree and perhaps finding that dream job.
During my senior year here at Grand Valley State University, I was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity unlike any other. An opportunity that came about on March 3, 2012 when I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Michigan. Ms. Wheelchair Michigan is not a title I will hold for more than a year, but having the chance to advocate for the more 54 million Americans living with disabilities has been a once in a lifetime experience.
Before I get too far ahead of myself though, I thought I’d take a moment and get everyone caught up on what my first seven months as a titleholder has entailed. My main focal point throughout my reign has been to help others with disabilities gain resources they need in order to turn their dreams into goals. Weather someone is striving towards health, education, employment or leadership goals; it is my goal help them see the possibilities in life rather than limitations.
One of the things I always tell people is “life isn’t about the things you may never have the chance to accomplish, it’s about the opportunities you have in front of you.”
Since being crowned, I have had the opportunity to plan, attend or speak at 35 different events. I have pushed beyond perceptions that society may have about a person with a disability by participating in adaptive skydiving event, meeting with Gov. Snyder, planning recreational events for people with disabilities and speaking at various hospitals and schools.
In August, I was able to represent the state of Michigan in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in Providence, Rhode Island where I was named second runner-up.
During the week long competition, 28 ladies from across the United States came together to participate in workshops that were designed to help us grow as advocates and learn about different services we could bring back to our own states to help others with disabilities. Aside from workshops, each contestant gave a two-minute platform speech and was also judged during 25 minutes of private interview sessions.
One of the unique aspects about Ms. Wheelchair America and Ms. Wheelchair Michigan organization is that beauty is not judged. The program is designed to recognize the achievement and advocacy abilities of women in wheelchairs.
With the national competition behind us, all 28 women have returned home with life-long friendships, stories to share and new goals in mind.
The biggest message I hope people of all abilities take away from my time as Ms. Wheelchair Michigan is that we all face obstacles and we all have our own aspirations. Regardless of our situation, it is important to keep moving passed any hurdle life throws our way because that hurdle may lead us on a new adventure.
Throughout out the next several months I will be writing weekly blogs for the Lanthorn online, discussing current topics affecting people with and without disabilities and my reign as Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012.
Ms. Wheelchair Michigan 2012