One Student’s View on Why We Should Value Disabled People’s Experience

Courtesy Of K Wheeler
Welcome to the inaugural class of '29. We've selected 29 graduating college seniors, entering the "real" world in 2018, to write about the state of their lives. What are their hopes, dreams, fears, stressors, failures, and successes as they leave school behind? We will be releasing new entries on a daily basis. If you would like yours to be considered, please email classof29@refinery29.com.
My sophomore year of high school, my best friend had to have surgery and needed to use a wheelchair for a while. Her return to school was horrible. The school didn't accommodate her the way they were legally supposed to. She felt like a burden every time she asked for help with anything. For me, her experience was a wake up call. I’m a triple amputee and wheelchair user, but I never had any issues getting my accommodations. If anything, my school was over accommodating. I couldn't quite wrap my mind around why my friend's school had such terrible time.
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But as I finished high school, I learned that some of my other friends who lived in more rural parts of Washington or other states were being denied their right to the services and resources they needed to succeed in the classroom. It didn’t seem fair that what school you attended — something many of my peers had little ability to control — could dictate something as important as your ability to learn. I wanted to do something about it. That’s what started me down my current career path. I decided I wanted to become a disability rights lawyer.
Then I got to college. And I started to experience some of the same barriers I saw my friends struggle with in high school. My disability resources counselor didn’t seem to put as much of a value on my opinions or life experiences. He tried to give me the accommodations that he thought I’d need, versus what I actually needed. In high school, I was given unlimited time on all non-standardized tests, and on standardized tests, I had more than two times the allocated time. In college, my disability services counselor told me that figure wasn’t an amount they usually gave, and that I’d have to prove that I needed more than double time.
Illustrated By Paola DeLucca
When I took my first test of my college career, a math midterm, I only had time to look at maybe 50% of the questions, let alone answer them all. My counselor finally believed me, acknowledging that I actually knew my disability better than he did. This might sound like a victory, but I wasn’t allowed to retake that midterm with the proper amount of time. That class is the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten in my entire academic life, and the drop it caused in my GPA prevented me from graduating Magna Cum Laude.
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As I struggled to fix that navigate challenges on campus, I couldn’t help but think back to my friend’s struggles with accommodations back in high school. It made me realize that the system needs to change. It’s not just about helping people advocate for themselves. Sometimes, the biggest problem is people not acknowledging and validating a disabled person’s experiences. To really see a change, we need to both empower people with disabilities to be stronger advocates, and help society acknowledge that people with disabilities know themselves, and they should be listened to.
Now I’ve graduated and I’m entering the “real world.” I’m hearing from my friends in the workforce that, depending on your employer, accommodations can be hit or miss, even though they’re a legal right. Take the example of someone who needs to use a screen reader program (software that helps communicate text on a computer screen to the visually impaired). Their employer doesn’t need to buy the employee’s preferred program, even if they have been using a certain brand for most of their life. They just have to buy a screen reader. This might not seem like a huge deal, but programs have completely different interfaces and shortcuts. Learning to effectively use a new program could take months, even longer to get to the same efficiency as with the old program.
Like many grads, I’m also worried about finding a job in general. For me, finding housing that’s affordable and accessible adds an extra layer of stress. Cheaper options, like renting a single room in a house or staying in someone’s basement, aren’t an option when an accessibility barrier like stairs is involved. Commuting can be extra hard and annoying as a person with a disability, so I’m also limited on how far away I can work. I also can’t fall back on many other entry-level job options my peers can use to pay the bills, like being barista, cashier or waiter, as they’re all rather manual-based labor. Even with accommodations, I’d be worried that I couldn’t fulfill the basic requirements of the job.
Even with the many barriers I faced in my schooling, and the many more I’ll most likely face throughout the rest of my life, I still have my sights set on being a disability rights lawyer. I want to do everything I can to help people with disabilities navigate, address, and remove the barriers in their lives. My experience has also inspired me to go into politics. I’m hoping I can eventually affect nationwide change from inside the White House. I’ve had enough of noticing issues in the system, complaining about them, and hoping they change. I want to take an active role in improving equity and accessibility in our nation.
K Wheeler is a queer and disabled recent graduate from the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Honors Program who double majored in Law, Societies, and Justice and Disability Studies. After a gap year, K plans on attending law school to become a disability rights attorney before working up the political ladder and becoming the President of the United States of America.
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