Watch out World! Here Come the New Batch of Wheelie Bright and Determined Graduates with Disabilities!

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Celebrations abound for students with fresh new degrees in Law, Psychology, Business and more!

The world has become a little more inclusive and the skills and experiences these grads on wheels offer will only serve to show that programs and services, as well as community and family support, do work. We need to ensure that these programs and services are not defunded or cut.




Here are some motivating graduates who made it through the rigors of academia and their advice on what it takes:

Cody Piscitelli: University of Idaho’s Environmental Science program. B.S. in Environmental Science with emphases in hydrology and the application of Geographical Information System (GIS)

Cody will go on to Oregon State University in the fall to attend their Environmental Science M.S. program.

“I've always been curious about the natural world and gaining an understanding of nature's physical and ecological interactions.”

Cody Piscitelli graduates with a B.S. in Environmental Science
Cody Piscitelli graduates with a B.S. in Environmental Science (accompanied by his Faculty Advisor (L) and his Mother (R)

“The best information I’ve learned is to not focus on what jobs are in the field before picking a program, but to study what you want. There will be jobs in the field and it is more important to pursue happiness rather than the dollar.

Some advice I’d give is to explore all options and opportunities. I got extensive help from Vocational Rehabilitation, which completely funded my undergrad. Another resource is the school’s disability office. They bring in desks, note takers, will justify absences, or provide any other resource necessary for people with disabilities. There are also numerous private, non-academic-based scholarships available, which are fairly easy to get, so apply for everything you can.

I received a great deal of help, which allowed me to move into an apartment by myself in a new town, and to get this degree completely debt free. Do not get discouraged by a disability.”

Chelsea Rae Huggins: Associates in Science (Magna Cum Laude 3.8 GPA) Major in Psychology

Chelsea will further her college education in this field at Troy University this fall, where she will seek her Bachelor’s and then Master’s degrees.

“I chose to attend college close to home for my basics. My greatest lesson has been advice from an instructor to not set destination goals, but characteristic goals. My goal is no longer to be an instructor or psychologist, but to be successful and influential in everything I do regardless of where life takes me. "

Chelsea Rae Huggins shown in cap and gown
Caption: Chelsea Rae Huggins shown in cap and gown with Dr. Herbert Riedel, President; Ron Faircloth, Board Member; Mr. Jimmy Baker, Chancellor of the Alabama Community College System (L to R)

My biggest tip to tackling the tough requirements that come with attending college with a disability is to form good relationships with your instructors and the college staff, because they will assist you and make accommodations in more ways than you’d imagine.

I would like to thank my family, the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation, Vocational Rehabilitation, and the faculty and staff at Lurleen B Wallace Community College. Each of them had a significant impact on me attaining this achievement.”

MaryKate Callahan: BA in Psychology and Sociology

“I chose to pursue these as my degrees to enable myself to better understand how people interact with one another. I also wanted a better understanding of how people are influenced by their outside surroundings.

I think my greatest lesson while working toward my degree was balancing everything. I’m also an athlete that travels to compete, so I needed to manage my time very wisely in order to get everything done.

"My greatest piece of advice would be to always remember that you are your greatest advocate. Nobody knows what you need more than yourself. If something isn't working or there’s another way it could be done, speak up."

MaryKate Callahan with family
MaryKate Callahan with family

I have some of the greatest friends and family, without them, the last four years wouldn’t have been possible. My mom and dad always did their best to teach me how to be as independent as possible when I was younger.

That was one of their biggest gifts they gave to me—now my independence has enabled me to chase so many dreams around the world.” Follow MaryKate on Twitter @mkcallahan13, as well as on Instagram @mk.callahan.

Jen Goodwin: Degree – Juris Doctor Law, William H. Bowen School of Law

“Law has always been an area that I have been interested in. I thought that it seemed liked a career that I could be successful from a chair. I’ve learned that so many people are genuinely willing and actually enjoy helping when they can. I’ve had to learn to ask when I need a hand, and there has always been someone willing to step up.

I would say to someone that wanted to pursue a similar degree, don’t let yourself get so overwhelmed that you think you cannot manage. If you want to ease in a bit, start as a part-time student. This makes the time requirements and reading assignments more manageable when also trying to manage an injury.”

“Of course! I'm thinking ... it's equally as important to not get your graduation gown tangled in your wheels as it is to not trip up the stairs in your heels!"

Jen Goodwin Graduating with a law degree
Jen Goodwin Graduating with a law degree

And, if a quad, get a quality voice to text program for taking notes at home and for your exams. Ask friends in each class to share their class notes with you.

I want to thank my family that dreamed my dreams with me to allow me to both finish my law degree and have a baby as a single quad mom, all in the same timeframe. I certainly could not have made it without them!”

What Comes Next for Our Esteemed Graduates with Disabilities?

Is the world ready? How can we best utilize these bright new scholars, and what support and encouragement do they need to best contribute to their future and to society?

The Good: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than five million people with disabilities were employed in 2015.

Many corporations are focusing on disability as part of diversity initiatives.

"I think the best thing I've seen [since the ADA] is corporations beginning to pay attention to disability as element of diversity. Reversing the thinking that they are a burden and instead thinking about them as having strength to bring to the workforce."
Susan Dooha, Executive Director of Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York.

For instance, Citibank provides trainings that specifically refer to consideration for persons with disabilities. Globally, Citi has five Persons with Disability Networks.

The Bad: We also know that the unemployment rate has increased for individuals with disabilities, with the majority trying to support themselves on inadequate disability benefits.

The unemployment increase is due in part to more people getting older and becoming disabled.

The Ugly: According to the Social Security Administration, “At the beginning of 2015, Social Security paid an average monthly disability benefit of $1,165. That is barely enough to keep a beneficiary above the 2014 poverty level ($11,670 annually).” Those benefits can increase according to inflation, but such was not the case in 2016, in response to lower consumer prices in the previous year.

Some things to consider to parlay that degree into success!

  1. Environment: WalletHub provides great data on where some of our graduates with disabilities might want to live in 2017 to best leverage their new lives . They rank the cities based on “economy”, “healthcare”, and “quality of life”.
  1. Benefits Management: Become informed about how will you deal with disabilities benefits such as SSI, SSDI or other disability insurance and healthcare while earning a salary
  1. Transportation: Wheelchair modified vehicles cost upwards of $55,000 or more. Uber and Lyft are not options for most wheelers to get downtown or to work. Wheelchair cabs are expensive and not as readily available. Find out what your State can offer: Effective State Solutions to Help People with Transportation Challenges Access Jobs.
  1. Funding for specialized products that are more expensive: Your employer or Vocational Rehabilitation can help with work related products. But keeping healthy is also key to your success. Most can’t just go and join a gym for fitness or find an accessible pool with a lift in their community. Though, Wheeler’s Paramill is working on that … check out their special offer of $500 towards your fitness goals! An insiders look into the progress of adaptive sports within our communities.
  1. Discrimination and Bias Against Disability: “Most employers have never hired or worked with a person with a disability.  Let’s face the facts and know that it is often up to us to make them feel comfortable. I once had a business leader tell me “I would rather hire a gay or black person as “diversity”, as it won’t cost me anything in accommodations.”

Well, let’s start by educating them.

Nothing wrong with bringing up “accommodations” you may need upfront, and not wait for them to ask or wonder, adding to their fear of the unknown.

“I just need an accessible bathroom and a desk that I can get my wheelchair under. If you like, I can check out the work space and let you know how I can best work there,” for example, is something I have done in the past and it seemed reassuring. It can be a flexible schedule, a break to go home midday for personal care, or a service animal, whatever you may need, just let them know so they don’t have to wonder and take the path of least resistance.”
Deborah Davis, Founder PUSHLiving.com.

If you are considering a future with a degree in hand to help you overcome low wages, disability benefits and limited resources, you may ask:

Degree or No Degree: What type of work are highly compatible with wheelchair lifestyles?

How about dancer? Body builder?  Well, ask Infinite Flow Dancer Adolfo Cereme how one can be limitless in career choices.

How about a model? Sure! Whether it is commissions on Stock photography, or being part of a runway show or national campaign, these are all options that exist and are becoming more profitable.

Entrepreneurship is a great way to go, as you can work your own hours and build a business while still under the support of any disability benefits you may have.  Here are some great resources on how to start a business from the Small Business Administration.

Please let us know if you have a business now, and we will add you to our Resources Section for free.  Also, please support other disability-owned business and read this article on how we can all improve our “disability economy”. It shows power and influence when we do so.

Sure, there is research that suggests what might work best, and you can find that here, but don’t let that pigeonhole you into a career. “Find your passion, and it will lead you to your purpose,” Oprah Winfrey said.

Related:

Disability and the entrepreneurship movement
Disabled community and entrepreneurs unite

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