Breaking down barriers

Breaking down barriers

Breaking down barriers -

Sophomore Hannah Langlie, a journalism major, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. Langlie was recently hired as the programming and communities coordinator for the UW’s D Center. 

Photo by Saskia Capell

Breaking down barriers

Breaking down barriers

UW sophomore advocates for students with disabilities

When Hannah Langlie is in public, people stare. It’s something she has gotten used to over the years. A common perception is that since she is in a wheelchair, she has a mental disability. Langlie hopes to change the way society views people with disabilities.

Currently a sophomore at the UW, she has developed many passions. As a journalism major, Langlie loves to write, and she enjoys “random” trivia, singing, soccer, and travel — pretty normal stuff. In many ways, she is your average college student. But she doesn’t deny that in some respects, her life is anything but average. Langlie was born with a type of cerebral palsy (CP) called spastic quadriplegia.

For as long as she can remember, Langlie has used her wheelchair to get around. Adorned with stickers, her Permobil C500 VS power chair is a mode of transportation she has become familiar with. Straps and a seat belt keep her body from involuntarily moving as she navigates the campus, but it’s rare to see her without a smile on her face.

“One thing I want to say is that yes, I’m different, and yes, it’s OK,” Langlie said. “There will be some things that I do differently, but it doesn’t make me any better or any worse than anyone else. It’s not a bad thing for me. … It’s actually a source of pride. … I’m here to say that I’m not ashamed of it.”

Everyday life

By definition, spastic quadriplegia is a type of CP that affects all four limbs, rather than just the legs. It’s often characterized by a loss of motor and sensory functions in the affected body parts.

But, Langlie said, “I think that these classification systems are somewhat arbitrary and ridiculous. I can tell you that CP affects no two people the same way, in body or mind.”

In Langlie’s case, she’s extremely limited in the use of her legs. Because her muscles never learned to walk, she will most likely never be able to move around without a mobility device. But she has recently started experimenting with a walker to increase muscle endurance and to get exercise.

While her legs don’t function well, Langlie is able to perform simple tasks with her hands. But activities that require dexterity, such as pushing buttons, are often too difficult and tiring. Langlie’s CP takes the largest toll on her energy levels and coordination.

“I think it’s all about finding new ways to do things that would otherwise take me a lot of time because of energy issues,” she said. “This is often why I have staff help me.”

With the proper adaptations, Langlie has been able to ski, kayak, swim, and play soccer.

Reality check

Like most parents, Langlie’s were nervous about their daughter leaving the nest, otherwise known as Anchorage, Ala. She had to prove that she was ready. Because she had received a full academic scholarship to the UW and has grandparents nearby, her parents eventually came to terms with their child moving thousands of miles away.

So Langlie went. But while living on her own has given her a sense of freedom, the transition hasn’t been easy.

In high school, she received plenty of attention and assistance, but at the UW, Langlie has to fend for herself. While she has caretakers who help her with her morning routine, everything else is up to her.

“Sometimes I really wish I could have somebody tell me, ‘Here’s how you do this,’” Langlie said. “But I really haven’t had that luxury.”

One frustration, said Langlie’s grandmother Margaret, is that occasionally, her caregivers don’t show up. Without an aid, she is unable to get into her power chair. Consequently, she has been late for class several times.

“Everything I need, I have to go find it,” she said. “I think it’s really indicative of the difference between school life and real life, so I think it’s a good thing. [I realized] that nobody is here to save you. … It’s probably the toughest transition, but also the most rewarding.”

Navigating campus

Once she leaves her room in Poplar Hall, Langlie is on her own. Fortunately, most buildings on campus are wheelchair accessible.

While she said she’s mostly satisfied with the UW’s disability accommodations, Langlie’s grandmother expressed concern about her safety crossing the street to campus, and added that she wishes her granddaughter lived on the ground floor of her dormitory, in case there is a fire.

There is an existing plan to help Langlie exit the building if a fire were to occur, which she said she has recently taken time to examine.

Every quarter, when she gets her new class schedule, Langlie travels the route beforehand to make sure she can get to each classroom. She said she has only ever had trouble accessing Anderson Hall and was able to switch her class to a different building.

Before the quarter begins, Langlie meets with her professors to discuss what she will need to be successful. In most classes, she has a designated notetaker assigned by UW Disability Resources for Students (DRS).

Sometimes, Langlie takes shorthand notes in class, but she often finds it tiring to write and retain information simultaneously. At home, she uses a speech recognition program called “Dragon NaturallySpeaking” to
do homework, which increases
her productivity.

While Langlie said her professors have been great so far, her friend Cara Liebowitz, a junior at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania who also has CP, has had a different experience. Many people don’t understand CP, she said.

“I have struggled a lot with the nature of my disability and teachers not knowing how to accommodate me,” Liebowitz added.

The UW is ranked on College Xpress’ “Colleges with a Physically Disabled-Friendly Environment” list, and it is named similarly on several other websites.

“This is one of the best universities in the country for that,” Langlie said. “That being said … there are a couple of things that [could improve].”

Bree Callahan, the director of the DRS, joined the team in October with a vision of transforming the program to make it more technology-centered.

“What I like about technology is it provides for students to be more independent and not have to be dependent upon services,” Callahan said.

First impressions

Many people don’t recognize the difference between mental and physical disabilities, said Liebowitz, who runs a disability activism blog.

“We’re still in the mindset where it’s all or nothing,” she said. “Either disabled people are worthless, useless, broken objects of pity, or they’re inspirations who have accomplished amazing things, even when those things are quite ordinary.”

For Langlie, the biggest challenge is “breaking down the perceived barriers and going into everything gung-ho.”

At school, she has good days and bad days. Sometimes on the bad days, Langlie overhears her classmates whispering about her. Several weeks ago, she heard a nearby student say she should be at home with her parents, instead of at school.

When she attends class in large lecture halls and has to sit in the front row before hundreds of students, Langlie said she feels intimidated.

“A common perception is, ‘Oh, she’s in a wheelchair; what is she doing in college or in the real world without a baby sitter?’” Langlie said. “Once you get to know me, it’s not a big deal.”

Getting involved

Langlie’s wheelchair hasn’t stopped her from getting involved on campus. In fact, it has opened doors and helped her make close friends while transitioning into the college lifestyle.

She was recently hired as programming and communities coordinator for the UW’s D Center, a new cultural space on campus — scheduled to open April 5 — where members of the disabled and/or deaf communities can meet and collaborate.

Langlie has also been involved with the Disability Advocacy Student Alliance, the UW American Sign Language Club, and a Washington-based online community for women with disabilities, called GimpGirl.

While Langlie said she doesn’t know where she would be without all of the help and support she receives, she added that her purpose is not to be anyone’s inspiration.

“I’m just me,” Langlie said. “I’m not here to be pitied or put on some type of pedestal. … I may have some different things that I have to deal with, but for the most part, I’m just trying to make this a better community. Come say hi.”

Reach reporter Lily Katz at features@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @LilyKatz

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