Sophomore Cece Black is a typical student: She enjoys hanging out with her friends, she lived in Thurston Hall last year, she is part of a sorority and, like any good Colonial, she participates in a number of student organizations. But one aspect visually sets her apart: a wheelchair.
When Black was 16, she and her family were struck head-on in a traffic accident by a speeding driver. Her parents’ injuries were mild, but she and her brother were injured severely. Her brother has since recovered, but Black was paralyzed from the chest down.
November is Disability Awareness Month at GW and Black is just one of 749 students with registered disabilities on campus, 39 of which are physical, according to last year’s data from Disability Support Services.
“I think what’s really critical is that the disability doesn’t define the student,” said Christy Willis, director of DSS.
Willis’ assertion holds true in Black’s case. Her infectious smile, blonde curls and positive aura draw attention away from the disability. Yet as well adjusted as she is, wheelchair accessibility was still a major issue the sophomore considered when choosing which college to attend.
“GW was by far the most accessible campus that I looked at,” said the Seattle native. She explained that the compact and relatively flat nature of the campus made it appealing to her and her parents. She added that D.C. is a more accessible city than New York or Boston, where she had initially considered going to school.
Willis said that the DSS is not only working to improve accessibility on campus, but is also involved in a dialogue with the city, especially at points where campus and city overlap. She cited the installation of audible crosswalk signals at the treacherous intersection of 23rd and I Streets by the Foggy Bottom Metro as one such collaboration.
Black said she does not typically “feel unequal” at GW, but there are times when her disability unavoidably has gotten in the way. For example, the Vern Express wheelchair lift has caused some problems.
“No one knows how to work it, which I find hilarious,” she said. “It goes up and down!” In addition, she is unable to live on her sorority’s floor in International House, although a ramp has been built to increase the building’s accessibility.
For some students it seems impossible to understand what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone with a disability. Senior Cheryl Silverbrook was forced to see life differently after an accident in late July left her wheelchair-bound for six weeks.
“It’s really tough not being able to walk,” said Silverbrook. “It’s a truly enlightening experience.”
Since she lacked the upper-body strength needed to use a wheelchair, she was forced to use a scooter to travel around campus and recalled the unwanted attention that it drew.
“Being in a scooter was not how I wanted to spend the beginning of my senior year,” Silverbrook said. “It was like being a freshman again . being so self- conscious.”
She also said she was surprised by the obliviousness of the GW community. Black shared this sentiment and said that many people lack “special awareness” when it comes to allowing those in wheelchairs to pass by them.
But both girls agreed that in general, there is a very compassionate spirit at GW toward the disabled.
Organizations such as the DSS Speakers Bureau, of which Black is a member, are working to create a greater awareness of what it’s like to have a disability and addressing attitudes toward people with disabilities.
“It’s just my hope that we embrace students with disabilities,” Willis said, “and recognize the talents that these students bring to GW.”