As we progress further into the 21st century, the world is a much more complex place than it has been in the past. Education is now more crucial than ever and it is nearly impossible to succeed in some careers without higher education.
Yet, like many things in life for persons with disabilities, there are barriers to higher education apart from those related to their physical or intellectual disabilities. Despite these barriers, I chose to pursue college after high school. The following piece is intended not only to describe my personal journey, but it is my hope that other advocates may learn from my success as well as my failures.
Before I can begin to describe my journey through higher education, it is important to discuss a little bit about my physical limitations. I have spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Due to the severe nature of my physical disability, I need a lot of personal care to perform basic everyday tasks, including bathing, eating, housekeeping, and assisting with technology. With all this in mind, I was not sure if I would get to go to college. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to find a school in North Carolina that could provide for my personal care needs while I pursued academics. To this point, I did not encounter any issues related to my disability; in fact, it was an afterthought. Unfortunately, it would not be long until my disability would play a larger role.
Halfway through my sophomore year, the administration chose to discontinue the personal care program on campus. Although a small collection of individuals, including myself, advocated for the administration to change their minds, we were unsuccessful. Being forced to transfer schools, I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree at another school in northern Pennsylvania that also had a personal care program.
I finally graduated in 2010 with two bachelor’s degrees with no additional glitches related to my disability. I had obtained a degree in history in order to become a high school history teacher and, eventually, a college professor. Therefore, after graduation I decided to go back for my master’s in education as well as a teaching certificate for secondary education social studies. As with any graduate level work, the coursework was both challenging and highly engaging. Along with courses in educational technique and history, there was one other requirement: In order to become a state-certified teacher, I needed to complete a rotation as a student teacher. When it came time for me to apply for student teaching, my disability would again become a factor.
I was aware that student teaching would be a different experience for me as compared to my able-bodied counter parts. To be proactive, I decided to meet with the administration a semester before I was to start student teaching. All parties involved were aware that it was going to be a unique experience for all. After expressing their concerns about my ability to manage a classroom of teenagers and my aide doing all of the physical work for me, such as writing on the board and collecting papers, I pointed out that I would be doing all the preparation, lecturing, and communicating with students and that I had fulfilled all requirements and maintained a 4.0 average in the program. I was not asking for special treatment but simply the opportunity to fulfill the student teaching requirement and finish the curriculum. After a year and a half battle with the administration, they did not support my efforts to student teach to the point of declining to even explore an accessible position with a supportive supervising teacher (arranging student teaching assignments was the university's responsibility). In the end, I was granted the master’s degree without the teacher’s certification. I did not pursue the matter further through legal advocacy because of some family issues that were going on at the time.
Some may say that I missed a great opportunity to advocate for myself via a lawsuit. To this I would say they are absolutely correct. I may have missed a great opportunity but the experience overall was beneficial nonetheless. No, I am not currently a teacher, but the experience galvanized my passion for advocacy and helped form the powerful self-advocate I am today. I also now realize that many of the barriers that people with disabilities face are placed upon them by a society which does not understand that we deserve the same opportunities as everyone, including the opportunity to fail. My journey may not have ended where I thought it would, but if I learned one thing from my experience, it is that life can ignite your true passion in unexpected ways.
Currently, I’m just getting my feet wet in the self-advocacy scene but I still have a desire to teach. I now intend to combine both passions in order to influence systems changes for persons with disabilities. Next August I will enroll in the City University of New York’s online master’s program in disability studies and from there pursue a PhD in disability studies from the University of Illinois Chicago. One journey may have ended but the journey of an advocate never ends.