Freshman, alumna with disabilities share on-campus experiences

Marisa Charpentier

For architecture freshman Emma Johnston, childhood consisted largely of broken bones and hospital visits. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that causes bone weakness, Johnston has broken more than 30 bones in her lifetime and has been using a wheelchair since the age of 3. 

For the past 19 years, she has grown accustomed to her own way of functioning, whether it be opening doors a certain way or situating herself so she can carry objects in her lap. 

“I am a huge advocate of having a manual chair because I love that physical control over your own body,” Johnston said. “There are a lot of times when I’ve felt totally unconnected to my body, and so being able to move by my own power is hugely important to me.”

Johnston’s move from Minneapolis to Austin has come with its own string of adjustments.

“It’s been more difficult than I thought it would be,” Johnston said. “Minneapolis is very large, and you could take your car pretty much anywhere. It’s also significantly flatter. If I needed help, I was always with my family or friends.”

According to the Services for Students with Disabilities website, while a majority of buildings and areas are accessible to people with disabilities, the campus is old and not every building or area accommodates. Emily Shryock, assistant director of Services for Students with Disabilities, works with students with mobility disabilities and committees to improve campus for them. 

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” Shryock said. “There is a master plan to work on the disability challenges, but that takes time and money, so it’s really a matter of prioritizing where to start and working from there.”

The toughest part of college for Johnston began before she even got accepted with having to write her special circumstances essay. Johnston had to be honest with herself about how she feels about her disability. She decided to write about how her wheelchair has affected her personality. 

“I had to learn how to be articulate,” Johnston said. “Most people I know in wheelchairs are extremely outgoing. Demonstrating that you are fully there mentally is a huge thing.”

Audrea Diaz, a 2010 UT alumna and freelance writer in Austin, said she knows exactly what that feels like. Born with cerebral palsy, Diaz has little strength in her hips and has weak muscles. She loses her balance easily and uses a walker to move from place to place.

In October, French senior Andrew Ridout spent a week maneuvering around campus in a wheelchair and submitted a column to The Daily Texan describing his experiences. Diaz submitted a Firing Line to the Texan in response.  

“I understand that he was trying to do a good thing, but it was like a slap in the face,” Diaz said. “I’m not going to let you speak for my experiences because they’re sacred to me.”

Before getting her walker during the middle of her college career, she walked around with a rolling backpack to keep her balance in check, but she often fell and harmed herself. Many of her memories of her time at UT are painful. She remembers the rough cobblestone, the scratches on her knees and makeshift bandages made of Bounty napkins and Scotch tape.

“This University was like a monster to me when I first started,” Diaz said. 

Both Johnston and Diaz said they have found that cracks and potholes on the sidewalk can be frustrating. Diaz, who often passes through campus when transferring buses, said she has not noticed much change since she graduated in 2010. 

“I can walk to the same areas and notice that that pothole is still there or that crack is still there,” Diaz said. According to Shryock, about three to four projects to improve accessibility on campus occur each semester. Recent improvements include redesigned curb cuts and improvements to the sidewalk area by Inner Campus Drive.

“A lot of times, timing depends on the beginning part of engineering and research and figuring out what it’s going to take and finding funding,” Shryock said.    

Other delays arise when it comes to street ownership. Some of the streets belong to the city of Austin instead of UT. When making curb cuts on the sidewalks of the intersection of Dean Keeton and Whitis Avenue, for example, UT had to work with the city first, which added time to the project.

Overall, Johnston said she believes UT does a good job making campus accessible, but she still finds signs for handicap entrances to be a problem. There is a map of campus accessibility, but it does not outline where the entrance is on the building specifically enough. 

For Diaz and Johnston, creating a perfect world for disabled people goes back to the idea of perception. They don’t want to be seen as victims, or even victors — just normal people. 

“There’s this part of society that believes people who struggle with disabilities are somehow stronger or more enlightened individuals,” Johnston said. “I get where that springs from, but it sort of has turned into a thing that undermines my own humanity and normalcy. I don’t see my wheelchair as an imposition all of the time. It’s so much a part of me that I don’t recognize that I’m different 24/7.”