For many people, it is difficult to imagine the life of a person
confined to a wheelchair. To shed some light on that mystery, Daily
Staff Reporter Maria Sprow talks with two disabled students and
spends a day in a wheelchair.
Starting a conversation …
Many students on campus have probably seen
23-year-old Erica Mitchell, an RC senior, at one point in time. As
an amputee who uses a wheelchair, she easily stands out from her
The summer before her freshman year of college, Mitchell’s
knee had started to hurt. Doctors diagnosed her with tendonitis,
But on her first day in East Quad Residence Hall, at the age of
18, she discovered that the diagnosis was much more severe. As she
stepped down from her bunk bed, her leg collapsed at the knee. She
broke her femur in the process, and was rushed to the hospital.
A biopsy determined that she had osteogenic sarcoma — a
kind of bone cancer. She was given the choice between undergoing a
series of reconstructive surgeries and delaying her chemotherapy or
amputating her left leg. She chose to amputate her leg and start
chemotherapy. But living without a leg proved to be a
Although Mitchell said many amputees use prosthetics to get by,
she eventually made the decision to use a wheelchair.
“The prosthetic wasn’t working for me as far as
being a college student,” she said. “For my type of
amputation, the technology isn’t so great. It was heavy and
clumsy and I finally figured out that I don’t need the
prosthesis to make myself feel better.”
Like many people her age, she said that before she was diagnosed
with cancer, she had never really wondered what life with a
wheelchair would be like. “It took me a while to get over the
fact that it’s okay to use a wheelchair,” she
She eventually graduated from a motorized wheelchair to a manual
one, she said. But first, she had to build up her arm strength,
doing exercises throughout the summer to prepare her for the school
“It was really hard for me to have to admit that I had to
use the motorized wheelchair. I had a terrible amount of
pride,” Mitchell said.
… and saying hello …
Born three months premature, RC freshman
Sarah Watkins needed surgery to repair her underdeveloped heart
valves. But she had a stroke during the surgery — a stroke
that led to cerebral palsy.
Now at 18, she spends her entire day in a motorized wheelchair.
She needs help getting out of and into bed each day, and has hired
several University students to help her do the things her parents
used to do.
“But that’s not too much of a strange thing to me
because I’ve always been used to people helping me with those
kinds of things,” she said.
She said she is capable of doing most things are capable of
— like walking up stairs — so long as she has
Watkins said she has had five surgeries, the last one which
occurred in the fifth grade. But since CP is not a progressive
disorder, many of her foreseeable medical complications are in the
“It’s over and done with,” Watkins said.
“I don’t think of (the medical problems) a lot because
while my disability is a part of who I am, I don’t like to
“First and foremost, I am a person. I am not a medical
condition,” Watkins added.
… to two students who are not so different.
Watkins’ disability and her chair
cause her to get a wide variety of reactions from the people she
comes across, Watkins said. “Little kids alternate between
staring at me and coming up to me and asking me how I broke my
legs,” she said. “A lot of people smile, like,
‘oh how cute’ kind of thing.”
She said a lot of the stereotypes she believes may be associated
with her illness have to do with her mental capacity.
“There are people who think I am paralyzed, and I am far
from it,” Watkins added. “A lot of people will think
I’m mentally impaired, which they have the grounds for,
because many people with CP are. … but I’ve always
been the girl in a wheelchair in general (education).”
Watkins said she knows that other people wonder about her
impairment, as well as how she deals with what non-handicapped
people would consider every day events.
“A lot of people are like, how do you deal with getting
all this crap done and how do you manage to live your daily life
and this and that,” Watkins said. “They think just
because I can’t walk, I can’t do anything
Although she is only in her third month of college and has all
her classes this semester within the Residential College in East
Quad Residence Hall, Watkins has made it a point to get involved in
several volunteer organizations. She is an active member of
K-Grams, the University Mentorship Program, the University Council
for Disability Concerns and MI Children, a child and family
advocacy group assisting low-income families in the area. She is
also a big fan of going to the football games, she said.
“Just because I’m in a chair doesn’t mean
I’m confined to my 15-by-15 room,” Watkins said.
Both Watkins and Mitchell take advantage of many of the services
offered to her and other disabled students through the Office of
Services for Students with Disabilities.
For instance, since it is physically difficult for Watkins to
write, she gets testing accommodations to make up for her labored
writing. She copies notes from other students in her classes and
has dictation software for when she writes papers. She gets many of
her books on tape.
Mitchell said she uses the office in order to register for
classes ahead of other students, since scheduling is more difficult
for her because she can’t take back-to-back classes.
Sam Goodin, the director and coordinator of services for
students with mobility impairments at the Students With
Disabilities office, said most students are not aware of all the
tools students with disabilities can use to compensate for their
“The uneducated person isn’t aware of all the things
that a person with a disability might be able to use in order to
overcome it. They don’t have the foggiest notion,” he
Besides giving students access to special equipment, the office
also hands out maps showing where handicapped accessible entrances
are to buildings and where elevators are. Among other services, the
office also employs an instructor to help blind students map out
the different walking routes that they will need to get them
through the school year.
Operations and Facilities spokeswoman Diane Brown said that
other University departments are also careful to take the needs of
disabled students into consideration.
“Our grounds staff obtains information from the students
with disabilities office to find out where students who are in
wheelchairs live and what buildings they need to get to so that
they can ensure that those sidewalks are cleared of snow first
— well, second. First is always the hospital,” Brown
Although not all areas of campus are accessible by wheelchair
— such as certain parts of West Quad Residence Hall —
Brown said many problems are addressed with the campus’s
continuous renovation cycle.
“Now that I’ve lived here for two and a half months,
I’ve figured out how to make the University work,”
Goodin said that many students have stereotypes that handicapped
people are more frail than they are.
“Confined doesn’t mean that they can’t walk
short distances, and it doesn’t mean that they can’t
get out and drive cars,” he said.
Goodin added that although physical disabilities are more
visual, oftentimes students with learning disabilities face a
greater stigma. He talked of one person he had known, who was able
to confess his homosexual preferences to his Catholic church, but
was unable to admit to his teachers that he had a learning
Watkins added that while not many students on campus share her
own very visual disability, there are many students on campus with
either a learning or other physical disability — disabilities
that aren’t so easily noticed by others.
“There are a lot of hearing impaired students and students
with learning disabilities whose problems need to be
addressed,” Watkins said, adding that often times she feels
that disabled people’s needs are “not a campus issue
because its not a visible campus issue.”
Mitchell, who drives, now lives in off-campus housing, but she
said finding a place to live outside of the dorms was hard. Many
student houses and apartments are not wheelchair accessible, and it
was difficult to find a landlord willing to allow her to make any
needed changes, she said.
“The ones that are actually accessible are town houses and
are really really expensive,” she said. “It definitely
wasn’t the first place we went to. We talked to six or seven
Mitchell has also learned to call ahead when venturing to
restaurants and other places she has never been, so that she can be
prepared for any problems that may arise. She “scouts”
out her classes prior to each semester’s start, finding all
the nearby elevators and restrooms.
“It’s a lot of extra preparation that other people
don’t have to do,” Mitchell said.
Overall, Watkins said she believes that between her own
abilities and the University’s ability to counter act many of
her disabilities, she is “not really all that different from
anyone else who goes here.”
“We can still go out and achieve the same things as
everyone else,” Watkins said.