“It kind of gets frustrating when people assume that I can’t do something because of my disability, like that I’m not intelligent or that I can’t be on TV and tell people the news or have my own talk show because people won’t watch me.” – Shannon Webster
When they announced her name for the 2009 homecoming court, two things were going through her mind: “Don’t fall and don’t cry.” The crowd chanted “Shannon! Shannon!” while she went up on stage to accept her crown. She felt that her peers accepted her for her true self. She felt honored.
This homecoming queen is Marquette freshman Shannon Webster, a broadcast major with high aspirations of becoming a public broadcast figure. She currently volunteers as an anchor for Marquette University Television, inspired by one of her greatest idols, Oprah.
You may not have been able to guess these things about Webster by simply looking at her, but if you spotted her on the campus sidewalk riding her segway, you could tell one thing for certain: she has a disability.
Webster, 18, was born with mild cerebral palsy with spastic dysphasia, a disability that affects body movement and muscle coordination. She has worn ankles braces and braces going up to her knees on both her legs her entire life. Webster said she is able to walk no further than a block before feeling pain and fatigue.
She utilized a wheelchair until her sophomore year at Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Ill., 45 minutes southwest of Chicago, when her school received a grant to purchase a segway as part of a program called Adapted PE for students with disabilities.
“Ever since then I loved riding a segway,” Webster said. “I just love being eye level with people because when you are in a wheelchair, people look down upon you, obviously physically, but also mentally without realizing that they’re doing it. And so, being in a segway, people don’t look at me because I’m disabled, but they look at me in the eye, and they look at me as a person, not just my disability.”
Coming to Marquette
Four months ago, Webster’s parents bought her a segway for about $6,000. According to Heidi Vering, the coordinator of the Office of Disabilities Services (ODS), she is the first Marquette student to ride around campus on a segway.
Most freshmen students need a week or two to get oriented with Marquette’s campus and get in the flow of walking to classes. Besides these adjustments, Webster said that finding all the disabilities entrances to her classroom buildings was a challenge.
Her segway may reach speeds of 15 to 20 mph by leaning in whichever direction she wants to go, but Webster said she has to plan how much time it will take to get to each class based on the sidewalk traffic and locations of disabilities entrances.
Webster said that when she anchors for MUTV in Johnston Hall, the Department of Public Safety drops her off at the hall’s entrance. Johnston’s lack of handicap entrances poses an obstacle for her.
According to Heidi Vering from the ODS, ramp entrances and automatic doors are scheduled to be built in Johnston Hall by next semester. This is good news for the fewer than ten disabled Marquette students in wheelchairs, and Webster, who will have most of her classes in the hall next semester.
“Life is a process,” she said.
Webster said she is used to asking questions everywhere she goes to clarify her situation and what accommodations she needs.
“I fly. I’ve taken the bus in Milwaukee. They have a ramp,” she said. “It’s all about asking questions and making sure you’re guaranteed whatever handicapped access I need, whether it’s a railing or a ramp or anything like that before I go anywhere. People are accommodating as long as I ask.”
Finding strength through physical obstacles
Throughout her life journey with cerebral palsy, Webster has had five major surgeries.
She had her first serious surgery when she was only five years old, going into kindergarten. Her hipbone popped out of its socket, and if she did not surgically put it back in place with plates and pins, she would not be able to walk today.
One year later, she had a second surgery to remove the pins in her hip and also get her hamstring and Achilles tendon lengthened.
At age 11, Webster had foot reconstructive surgery, where doctors inserted a cadaver bone on the outside of her foot to realign her foot and leg. Her Achilles tendon was also lengthened a second time. At age 13, her hamstrings were lengthened.
She had a foot reconstructive surgery with more cadaver bone at age 17, where doctors also cut the tendon around her ankle and lengthened her Achilles tendon a third time.
Webster said that these surgeries changed her perspective on what is most important in life. “It doesn’t define who I am as a person, but it definitely has added to my character and made me a stronger person,” she said.
She said she has also found strength through her supportive family and friends.
“Thank God God graced me with two wonderful parents,” Webster said. “My mom is my absolute best friend, and she has been like my right hand through all of this, so without her I wouldn’t be able to do any of this.”
Her faith in God has also carried her through hard times. “I go to church a lot, and I find grace and peace through God,” she said.
She said that despite being raised in a Catholic family, her faith was strengthened to what it is now during her sophomore year in high school when she went on a healing pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, through the Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic order based in Rome.
It is said that in 1858, St. Bernadette saw the Marian apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes. Hundreds of millions of people from around the world have visited Lourdes in hopes of receiving a miracle healing from the holy spring water from its grotto.
Webster said that she had compassion for the people she met at the shrine. She said she realized that “everyone has their own story” and appreciated what the people taught her there.
In early November, Webster visited Holy Hill, a national Marian shrine 30 minutes from Marquette.
“I’m like a Mary follower now,” she said. “I want to go to all the Mary sites.”
Dealing with discrimination
Webster said that though people do not look down upon her – physically and mentally – because she rides a segway instead of a wheelchair, many people are still intimidated to come up to her and ask questions.
“I really haven’t had a lot of discrimination [at Marquette] – some here and there and stares, and you know, things you can’t really avoid, but I’d rather people ask questions than stare at me and wonder,” Webster said. “It’s better to ask. I just don’t like being seen as this intimidating person because I’m so not an intimidating person.”
She continued: “I’d rather you come up and talk to me than wish you would have and keep staring at me. I’d rather just like let it go because that’s not what defines me as a person. It just adds to my life, in a positive way.”
Riding a segway instead of a wheelchair gave Webster the confidence boost to accept her disability and feel more comfortable speaking openly about it.
“The segway for me let me let go of my inhibitions … and be who I really am,” she said. “I am disabled, and I’m not afraid to like show that to people because obviously I was born this way for it to be seen and not for it to be covered up.”
Webster tries to lead as normal a life as possible. In high school she was on a swim team and now sometimes goes swimming in Rec Plex in Straz Tower.
“I’m not really afraid to try new things and to see how it goes. And if I fall down I fall down. I fall down almost every day, and people think it’s like the worst thing in the world, but to me, you just get right back up and brush your knees off a little bit, and you’re ready to go.”
As a broadcast major, Webster said she dreams of having her own television show. She said that people from back home in Illinois think that her disability limits her capabilities.
“I have a lot of people from where I live that are supportive of me, but they kind of think that my dream is too big, like that I want to be the next Oprah is like too big of a feat,” she said. “And for me, nothing’s too big. I’d rather go for it and then fail than not try at all.”
Webster said Oprah is her greatest inspiration along with Mary to keep fighting. “I fight not just for me, but for all the disabled people around the world,” she said.
She said she hopes to become a public figure for people with disabilities to inspire them to follow their dreams and not allow their disabilities to limit them.
She advised those with disabilities: “It’s not a disability; rather, it’s a different ability that can help you with your life and add to your life, and it makes you different in a way that’s special from anyone else.”
The accident happened on April 23, 2010, the day before prom. A driver who was under the influence rear-ended her car at 50 mph at 4:30 p.m. in Franklin, Wis. Severe whiplash with no airbags came to one inevitable end: a concussion and four hours in the emergency room. She doesn’t even remember her prom.
The diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder two weeks later only extended the depressive symptoms from her bipolar disorder.
Freshman Meghann Rosenwald was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in her junior year of high school at age 17 going on 18. She was genetically predisposed to the disability.
Of the two types of bipolar disorders, bipolar type II is less severe. People with bipolar II disorder experience symptoms of hypomania, a lesser form of mania, and depression. Rosenwald said that she experiences depressive symptoms about three quarters of the time and manic symptoms about one quarter of the time.
Rosenwald explained an example she learned from her psychology lecture: “On the depressive level, people have catastrophic thoughts, which means, they go to the extremes, like, ‘Oh my gosh, that person looked at me weird. They hate me,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, I got a really bad grade on my test. My teacher’s gonna hate me.”
On the flip side, she explained what a manic episode feels like: “It’s like giving somebody Amp, Mountain Dew, Monster, all this caffeine, and then people go and do really impulsive things.” She continued: “You don’t sleep, you’re really impulsive, you spend a lot of money, you can’t get anything done because you can’t focus to save your life.”
Rosenwald said she once had a severe manic episode that lasted three months during which she bought $900 worth of makeup.
To help cope with the bipolar symptoms, Rosenwald said she has to remember to take the correct dosages of five different medications daily, including 900 milligrams of lithium.
Rosenwald said the lithium works in the correct dosage, but five weeks ago, a discrepancy of .3 milligrams began to put stress on her kidneys, turned her blood levels toxic and caused her to become very sick.
On top of keeping up with her medication schedule, Rosenwald uses the therapeutic resources offered at Marquette.
In addition, she takes six classes at Marquette, including three science classes – chemistry, psychology and biology – for her clinical lab science major.
Coping is difficult, she said, but her boyfriend of one and half years, family and best friend help her get through it all. The Office of Disabilities Services also plays a key role in helping to alleviate the pressures of school by proctoring her exams and working with her English teacher for paper deadline extensions.
In addition, Rosenwald has a few very close and supportive friends from Marquette and back home.
She said she goes home to Hales Corners, Wis., each weekend to visit her three younger sisters, Rachel, 10, Amanda, 13, and Katie, 15, and her Lassa Maltese mutt named Oliver.
At Marquette, Rosenwald finds support through MU’s chapter of Active Minds, a group of thirty students with similar problems who meet monthly and run events grounded in “changing the conversation about mental health,” the organization’s slogan.
“Through campus-wide events and national programs, Active Minds aims to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and create a comfortable environment for an open conversation about mental health issues on campuses through North America,” the organization’s website states.
This is the third year Active Minds has been at Marquette. Rosenwald said that to her, the group is “a place for people to feel accepted” and “a safe haven.”
She explained: “Active Minds isn’t just a place of support, it’s a group of amazing and proactive people who have been affected by mental illness and just want to change that conversation. These are some of the greatest people I’ve ever had the chance to meet.”
The group held its second annual Suicide Awareness Walk on Friday, Nov. 19, where about forty people attended the walk around campus and memorial at St. Joan of Arc Chapel. Participants made luminaries made of lit candles in bags in remembrance of each of their loved ones who passed away.
Along with participating in Active Minds events, Rosenwald said she enjoys doing community service through her church, including a mission trip to Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota three years ago and food drives around the holidays.
Bipolar disorder may make life difficult often times, but it doesn’t stop her from enjoying life. Rosenwald began Tae Kwon Do in fifth grade and has been a second degree black belt since her senior year in high school. At Marquette, she takes yoga classes and attends meditation sessions, and in her spare time, she enjoys reading anything and everything, including the Harry Potter series. On the weekends, she works as a server at a local grill.
“I just always say, you gotta have your support system, and you got to just take care of yourself,” she said.
Rosenwald said she wishes that people would be more understanding of her disability and other mental illnesses. One in four people have a mental illness, according to Active Minds.
She explained: “Diabetes, you can take insulin. Bipolar disorder, look at all my medications that I have to take to maintain everything. I mean, bipolar and diabetes can pretty much be on the same playing field, but it’s just people don’t realize it because it’s invisible. Everybody thinks that bipolar disorder is more of a weakness.”
Bipolar disorder is not a weakness of character, but a medical condition. Rosenwald continued: “I am someone with bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t define who I am. It adds to a few personality quirks, but it does not define a person.”
Fast Facts on MU Students With Disabilities… Did you Know…
- There are two types of disabilities: visible and invisible
- Two-thirds of MU students with disabilities have learning or attention disabilities
- Other disabilities that MU students have are hearing impaired, low vision, medical, physical and psychiatric
- Number of MU students with disabilities: 300
- Number of MU students with disabilities who actively receive accommodations with the Office of Disabilities Services (ODS) each semester: 200
- If a student who rides a wheelchair enrolls in a class located in an inaccessible building, Marquette changes the classroom
- Common accommodations that the ODS provides students are extra time and/or a private room for test-taking and notetakers – 150 randomly selected students hired to take class notes for students with disabilities
- MU resources for students with disabilities: ODS in Marquette Hall, Center for Psychological Services (CPS) in Cramer Hall, MU Counseling Center in Holthusen Hall and Office of Student Educational Services in the AMU
[This information was acquired in an interview with Heidi Vering, coordinator of the Office of Disability Services]
by Melanie Pawlyszyn