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.

Louie Meizlish
RC senior Erica Mitchell lost her left leg to bone cancer when she was 18 years old. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)
Louie Meizlish
RC freshman Sarah Watkins was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after being born three months premature. (SETH LOWER/Daily)

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 peers.

The summer before her freshman year of college, Mitchell’s knee had started to hurt. Doctors diagnosed her with tendonitis, she said.

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 challenge.

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 added.

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 year.

“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 assistance.

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 past.

“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 medicalize myself.”

“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 else.”

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 disability.

“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 said.

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 said.

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,” Watkins said.

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 disability.

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 (landlords).”

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.

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