“I’m sorry you’re in a wheelchair” is a statement I often hear, coupled with a look of pity and misfortune that flashes across people’s faces.
31 years ago, at the age of six, I was in a car accident that left me a T-10 paraplegic. I remember my very first wheelchair – a Quickie – bright yellow with big front casters that allowed me to roll through the grass without dumping forward out of my chair. My dad attached a big orange reflector to the front for safety.
My family never let me miss out on anything and made sure I was fully included in absolutely everything. From sledding in winter, to swimming in summer to participating in the marching band in high school and getting my driver’s license at 16, I don’t think it ever really occurred to me that having a disability made me different. My family was always there to help me get to where I needed to be and fight each battle to ensure I enjoyed an equal experience to that of my able-bodied peers.
Then I got to college and really began to develop a strong disability identity. I was confronted with ableist attitudes, policies and procedures and had to routinely fight for my right to access and equality. Fortunately, my parents had taught me these skills growing up, so I was able to advocate for myself and others with disabilities.
After earning my undergraduate degree at SUNY Albany, I went on to pursue a Masters in Education at The College of Saint Rose and then a Masters in Broadcast Journalism at Syracuse University. From there, I began working in New York City public schools where I taught both middle and high school students. I also volunteered with NYCSCIA at Mt. Sinai Hospital, mentoring newly spinal cord injured individuals and eventually helped to create an SCI empowerment and support group for women known as Women on Wheels.
In my sixth year as a teacher in NYC public schools, I began teaching college classes in the evenings. At this time, I also discovered the field of Disability Studies and decided to return to college for another degree. I earned a Masters in Disability Studies at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies and became even more of a disability advocate in the process. Disability Studies provided me with the language and framework to describe the barriers to access and equality that I am faced with each and every day as a wheeler living in a society that oftentimes privileges the able-bodied. Because of the incredible mentors that I met in this program, I went on to earn a PhD in Education at Syracuse University. My research explored the lived experiences of students with physical disabilities in New York City public high schools.
Living, working, researching and volunteering in NYC has provided me with a whole new lens with which to view disability experience. The inaccessibility of the NYC subway system, school buildings and public spaces reminds me that there is so much work to be done in terms of valuing the participation of those with disabilities in our society.
So, to the people who feel bad for my “being in a wheelchair”… DON’T. Instead, let’s use that energy to fight for the rights, opportunities and equality of individuals with disabilities.
*For more information see: www.aprilcoughlin.com