The Michigan Daily - Friday, November 21, 2003 - 12A
Two University students tell their stories of
RC freshman Sarah Watkins was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after being born three months premature.
Starting a conversation ...
nystudents 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 stu-
dent," 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 exer-
cises 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 motor-
ized 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
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,"
dents 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 stu-
dents into consideration.
"Our grounds staff obtains information from the students with disabili-
ties 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 side-
walks are cleared of snow first - well, second. First is always the hospi-
It took me a
while to get
over the fact
that it s okay
to use a
tal," 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 continu-
ous 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
- Erica Mitchell
doesn't mean that they can't get out and drive cars," he said.
Goodin added that although physical disabilities are more visual, often-
times 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
Im in a chair
doesm t mean
I m confined
to my 15-by-15
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 visi-
ble campus issue."
Mitchell, who drives, now lives in
... to two students who are not so diffreent. off-campus housing, but she
Satms' disability and her chair cause her to get a wide variety of room. finding a place to live outsidec
reactions from the people she comes across, Watkins said. "Lit- dorms was hard. Many stu
tle kids alternate between staring at me and coming up to me houses and apartments ar
and asking me how I broke my legs," she said. "A lot of people smile, -Sarah Watkins wheelchair accessible, and i
like, 'oh how cute' kind of thing." RC freshman difficult to find a landlord will
She said a lot of the stereotypes she believes may be associated with allow her to make any needed changes, she said.
her illness have to do with her mental capacity. "The ones that are actually accessible are town houses and are
"There are people who think I am paralyzed, and I am far from it," really expensive" she said. "It definitely wasn't the first place we w
Watkins added. "A lot of people will think I'm mentally impaired, which We talked to six or seven (landlords)."
they have the grounds for, because many people with CP are.... but I've Mitchell has also learned to call ahead when venturi
always been the girl in a wheelchair in general (education)." restaurants and other places she has never been, so that shl
Watkins said she knows that other people wonder about her impair- be prepared for any problems that may arise. She "scouts
ment, as well as how she deals with what non-handicapped people would her classes prior to each semester's start, finding all the n
consider every day events. elevators and restrooms.
"A lot of people are like, how do you deal with getting all this "It's a lot of extra preparation that other people don't have t
crap done and how do you manage to live your daily life and this Mitchell said.
and that," Watkins said. "They think just because I can't walk, I Overall, Watkins said she believes that between her own al
can't do anything else." and the University's ability to counter act many of her disabiliti
Although she is only in her third month of college and has all her class- is "not really all that different from anyone else who goes here."
es this semester within the Residential College in East Quad Residence "We can still go out and achieve the same things as eve
Hall, Watkins has made it a point to get involved in several volunteer else," Watkins said.
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 assist-
ing low-income families in the area. She is also a
big fan of going to the football games, she said. h
"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 dis-
abled students through the Office of Services for