Oakland University breaks social barriers for students with disabilities

Students Organizations inspire upgrades, improves wheelchair accessibility

Photo does not have a caption

ROCHESTER, Mich – Oakland University’s Student Board Program and Student Congress bridged the gap between disabled students and able-bodied students this past October. 

Hosting a Paralympic-recognized sport, wheelchair basketball, students caught a glimpse of what life is like through the eyes of someone with limited mobility.

The event, open to the entire campus community regardless of ability, raised awareness to the challenges that most students dismiss each day. Students' lack of awareness, although unintentional, has led others feeing shunned from society because of their disability, officials said.

Elijah Sanders, a sophomore at Oakland University, was born with cerebral palsy. He is double majoring in political science and history and is a member of student congress. Although his achievements of helping to spark sidewalk repairs and automatic door installments on campus are commendable, his journey to prominence was not easy.

Campus life in a wheelchair 

Before finding his place in Student Congress his mentality was riddled with anger and frustration, which he once blamed on an ostracizing society.

As his disability oftentimes presented itself before his capability, students found it difficult to connect with the person within.

“When they first meet me, they are not sure who to interact with me because of the wheelchair," Sanders said. 

He began to doubt his place at a university after deciding to live on campus alone.  Spending his time exploring campus, he constantly ran into barriers. 

"I got stuck in the bathroom door. I endlessly almost fell, because there was snow everywhere, and I couldn’t get through it," he said. "Finally, one day, I said, well, maybe, this isn’t for me."

Sanders said he had thoughts of committing suicide after his efforts to connect with others were for naught. While he thought nobody would notice or care, he planned to quietly slip away.  He stopped only when considering his family and how much it would hurt them.

He compromised by simply existing, hanging around the Oakland Center, feeling withdrawn, sad and removed from society.

His internal conversations were dark.

“I’m very angry at the world. I’m angry at myself.”

Reaching a turning point

He was in the basement of the Oakland Center, where he discovered the office of Student Congress while questioning his purpose and longing to find a connection that would keep him going.

Out of desperation, he entered the office, asking a single question.

"How do I get involved with this?" he asked.

Instructed to collect 50 signatures to be able to apply to become a member of Student Congress, he collected 100 in two hours and inspired him to action.

Thinking he may have caught on to something, he wondered if he could be the voice of people.  He prepared a proposal and expected to be told no. Instead, he overheard something he never expected to hear on campus.

“I overheard them saying, 'He’s something special. There’s something about him we like. There’s something about him that we want here.'"

When it came time to vote in legislatures, Elijah was the only unanimous decision issued by Congress that sparked the fire within. Student Congress provided Sanders a place he could call his own for the first time since he entered through campus doors. 

To Sanders, challenges that seemed daunting turned into opportunities. He used the platform he was given on campus to promote change by promoting diversity and quickly became a mouthpiece of repairs and upgrades throughout campus.

Bringing campus together

Partnering with the Student Program Board, Student Congress and Diversity Director Sean Foe devised a plan that could unite students who were disabled with abled students. A few moments later, wheelchair basketball was on the schedule to be held at the Campus of Recreation Center. 

By chance, students with prior basketball experience were the primary players, but the sport became much different to them when their upper body was the only source of mobility.

Freshman Devin Spurlin was one of the players and began looking down at his hands as they became torn from the wheels.

"It was a great experience and a tip would be (to) wear gloves, Spurlin said. "It was a lot of upper body strength."

Foe hoped through raising awareness will inspire other repairs on campus.

“Sidewalks aren’t perfectly paved. There are a lot of doors that aren’t handicap accessible,” said Foe. “There’s just so much more to think about when you’re in a wheelchair."

Foe partnered with the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, who provided the wheelchairs. 

RIM ability coordinator, Myreo Dixon has lived 28 years in a wheelchair due to an injury he acquired when he was 18. 

His career is helping people adapt after sometimes tragic circumstances, where people having to relearn how to move.

"We take things for granted, simple things like walking," Dixon said. "This needs to be more publicized. Things like this, where people are trying to understand instead of just shunning people."

He has found through his experience with rehabilitation that those who require a wheelchair are still able to do everything that every able-bodied person can do. They just do it with adaptable equipment.

Although the basketball event was aimed at building awareness, it was more than a game to Sanders. After months of fighting for his place in society, he hoped that more events will inspire students to reach out to someone with a disability by asking them for their name.

“Offer your communication, offer your ear,” said Elijah.  “Don’t just offer them money. Offer your time.”

More about Student Congress