Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Instructor with CP helps launch new disability studies minor at Northern Arizona University

From The Arizona Daily Sun:

Cerebral palsy affects the brain, but not the mind.

Because of this neurological condition, Matthew Wangeman (pictured) needs help with essentially all physical functions. Some simply will never happen, such as speech. What he is quite capable of, though, is his work to advance understanding of the disabled person's experience.

As an instructor at Northern Arizona University, that's what he does.

Wangeman co-teaches an introduction to disability studies class, which is part of a new undergraduate minor that distinguishes itself from the special education and psychology programs in its sociological, not pathological, view of a range of disabilities -- from mental illness and blindness to developmental and cognitive disabilities. The extent of his handicap is likely the greatest for any NAU teacher.

What he wants people to understand, simply, is that disabled people are just like everybody else -- and, in fact, everybody has some kind of disability or limitation (for example, near-sighted people enter a different world without their glasses).

He's used to people assuming that he's intellectually diminished, blind, deaf or childlike. He counts himself as lucky though, because "people with significant disabilities are still not a part of society."

Wangeman has two college degrees, a meaningful job, and a son and partner, both able-bodied.

"I was at a ballgame and I thought to myself, not one person would assume I am a father, and I teach at NAU," Wangeman said by way of tapping on a customized letter board.

He makes sounds but cannot speak -- he doesn't have strong enough control of his mouth. To communicate, he uses a sheet of paper taped to the tray on his wheelchair. He spells out words, or taps on common words, with a stick attached to a bicycle helmet. A translator reads his words aloud.

Wangeman is swift with his board, and he has plenty to say.

He's been active on the Arizona Council for Developmental Disabilities for several years, and he first taught a disability studies class in 1997 at his alma mater, University of California-Berkeley. He feels that with his "success" at breaking through social barriers, it's important to give back to people of all abilities.

He said it worries him that disabled people do not have a unified voice to stand up for their interests.

"It is very ironic because people with significant disabilities are very visible yet socially, completely invisible," he said.

When Wangeman, 46, was about a year and a half old he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the result of his umbilical cord wrapping around him in the womb during an otherwise normal fetal development. The loss of precious oxygen to his brain paralyzed the control centers for speech and coordinated muscle movement.

So when he was 2, his mother sent him to an institution in New Jersey -- institutionalizing the disabled was common when Wangeman was a child. It was a nice place, he said, and his family visited.

But by about age 10, he was growing into his own self-advocate. He decided that he had learned all he could there, and lobbied to be promoted to a facility in North Dakota that offered a high school education.

He had a classmate there who ended up going to University of California-Berkeley, which had a new, ahead-of-its-time resource center for disabled students. He followed suit and earned a bachelor's degree in business and a master's degree in city planning from the Bay Area university. His wit and thoughts show that he is a learned man.

Katherine Mahosky is Wangeman's other half in the classroom. An able-bodied speech pathologist, she has worked with people with disabilities for more than 30 years.

She said today's young adult seems to be more accepting of disabilities, a result of the movement to integrate children with disabilities into regular classrooms.

Perceptions could still use work, though -- Mahosky said that there's a tendency to either cast people with disabilities as tragic or fawn over them as heroic.

"There's a lot of the in-between that nobody ever sees," she said.

The disability studies minor at NAU is new this fall, with only five officially declared students but classes that draw students from a range of majors.

Program coordinator Katherine Mahosky said NAU's Institute for Human Development (IHD), a resource center for and on behalf of people with disabilities, has long wanted this academic program.

In the introductory class, she draws on her professional background in speech pathology and Matthew Wangeman's professional and personal background in public policy, as shaped by his cerebral palsy. Wangeman has worked with the IHD for several years.

Mahosky said a recent survey of people with disabilities found that they saw negative attitudes and beliefs about their abilities, and an academic program like this tosses out myths and gives the reality of disability as a social construct.

"People with disabilities are not something to be feared," she said. "Typically they just want to have opportunities and life choices just like everyone else makes"

The IHD is a federally funded center that offers training, research, community service and awareness about disabilities. It's part of a network of 67 such campus disability resource centers.