Brianna Paauwee shares her experiences as a disabled student using a wheelchair after she broke her back in an auto accident. After the accident, she decided to go back to school. Learn how she navigated the new reality of life as a college student with a physical disability, and how she overcame the barriers she faced along the way.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/wheelwithmefitness/?ref=share_group_link -Wheel With Me Facebook Group
We have such a wide variety of people in the country. And there's so many people who don't feel like they have a place to go, they don't have a safe place to place to feel a part of. And that's what we need to do with the disabled community. That's kind of why I wanted to talk with you and like, share my experiences because I want others with disabilities to know that it's worth it. There's going to be barriers, there's going to be hurdles. But when you put yourself in that position to grow, and to really fill your cup, it's it's life changing. For me without my college experience, the people that I met the campus experiences, the events that I got to attend while being there. It all made me who I am right now.
Today, I'd like to introduce you to Brianna Paauwee and she is going to share her story about an automobile accident that she had at the age of 20 that left her paralyzed and changed her life completely. After the accident, she decided to go to college, and so she's going to share some of her experiences about life in college as a student using a wheelchair. So welcome to College Disabilities, and Success. Episode 93. Navigating College in a Wheelchair with Brianna Paauwee by Mickie Hayes. The opinions in this podcast are my own, please reach out to your college physician or legal services for additional information.
Brianna, Hi. Nice to see you.
Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you. Can you take a few minutes and tell us your story and what happened that turned your life upside down.
So in 2011, in August, I had made a really poor choice of drinking and driving. And during that time, I had lost control of my car. And I spun I flipped nose over end. And in the accident, my airbag did not go off. I had my seatbelt on. So where the lap band was holding me in is where my back broke. So I am now paralyzed from about the belly button down.
Oh my gosh, yeah,
it was it was really intense. I was only in the hospital for a month due to insurance issues. So I had two major surgeries on my back and on my leg, and I was only in rehab for maybe three weeks. So then from there, I had to navigate life on my own trying to figure out like what I was supposed to do with this new with this new body and my new barriers and how I can still be productive and an active part of my community. So it took me a few years, and I started going back to music festivals or concerts which music is a really big part of my life. And upon
going play Excuse me, do you play an instrument?
No, I just really love to dance.
Oh, my, well, that's your complicated things, didn't it?
Yeah, yeah, I was I was a choir girl in high school. And I just like to dance a lot. So after my accident, I never gave that up. So I would still go to music festivals and concerts so I could still dance in my chair. And that grew into me wanting to help the people around me. You know, you see a lot of people in these environments where they're on drugs, or they're drinking too much. And I wanted to find ways that I can help these people, how can I keep them safe? How can I prevent overdoses or things like that. And that's what kind of pushed me into getting into volunteering. So I started volunteering at these music festivals and learning first aid and CPR, and how to and harm reduction. Harm reduction is pretty much how to be safe while using recreational drugs. It's just I felt it in my soul helping people was what I was meant to do. It was time for me to figure out how to turn that into a career. And the best place to do that is college. Right? That's right. A few years after my accident, I finally made the choice to go back to school, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what field I wanted to go into. So I started out studying liberal arts. And from there, my passions just kind of grew. And I finished my liberal arts degree. I've transferred into a human services program finished that I have some Marketing and Entrepreneurship certifications. And I just I wanted to find way to make my knowledge and experiences useful to other people. So I've now taken my education and I help other people in the disability community, Jim independence.
Wonderful. Wow, what an amazing journey that you've had so far. How old are you? If you don't mind? My asking? Because you're not that old?
No, I'm actually only 32. So I've been so 11 years, 11 years.
What kinds of things did you experience? When you went back to college? What kind of barriers Did you hit? And how did you work things out with Disability Services to get accommodations? Could you go into that a little bit?
Yeah, absolutely. So when I decided to go back to college, I lived in a very small rural town in Wisconsin. So I had to Think about what can I do in terms of accessibility, transportation, and things like that, I did have the opportunity to attend a Tech College that had a satellite location right in my hometown, I thought it was like the only place to go, I was like, one option. And it's the only option in town. So I'm going to take it. And I just got very lucky that the satellite location that I was at was a very new building. But it was very accessible in terms of like the doors and the rooms and the spaces. But in terms of what types of classes they offered, as a lot of us know, satellite locations, they don't really have a lot. They don't have the they don't have multiple shooters, or professors and groups that you can get involved in. So I spent the first couple years of college doing doing classes at the satellite location, and online at home. And then I realized I was like, Okay, well, I need to get to the main campus to finish these programs. There's, I've done everything I can in my hometown. And now I need to move so I had to make the choice to move. So that was a big part of my college experience was like, Okay, how do I find accessible housing? Or is it more affordable to get a dorm through the school, and things like that, so I had to now start looking into a lot of different options. The best decision for me and my financial situation was to get low income housing. So I researched into low income housing, I was on a waiting list. And I got very blessed that my apartment building was five blocks away from the main campus. So once I was able to move I had to do at the main campus, I took a couple of weeks before the semester started, I practice rolling to school and back trying to make sure to find the best accessible path for myself. I got familiar with the buildings, that was a big one, like do these buildings have door push buttons, or are the doors too heavy for me to open on my own? These are things that I wanted to look into before my first day. So I went there. With my mother a couple weeks before the semester started, we adventured around on campus, I took notes. And then from there, I reached out to Disability Services, share them, my notes with them as a ham, I'm going to be a first time student here. And I these are what I found when I came to visit for me. And I noticed that every college I know every campus in university is very different. But the school that I went to, was so good. They took everything that I said to heart, they fix the things that I had pointed out because there were a double a couple of door buttons that were broken when I had done my my role.
And I was very smart checking it out ahead of time. Yeah. And
that's why I wanted to do it. Because I knew that going into a full load of classes, there's going to be enough stress as it is with the with the Shure changes, you're away from your parents, you're trying to figure out how to navigate an area. The last thing that you want to worry about is accessibility. And can I even get in the building I need to get into. So that was something that was really important to me was doing the research and kind of going through those emotions before the semester started. So if if anyone is listening in, they have the option to explore their campus or talk to their professors. Before I would do that. Don't be scared to tell them what you need, or let them know what you have going on in your life. I made it a point to let my professors know that I had to deal with public transportation. I'm in a wheelchair, I have no car, and there's going to be days where I have to take a cab or the bus. And when the buses or the cabs are running late or don't show up. That's that's not something I can't control, made sure to tell the professors that most colleges have, you know, attendance policies and things like that. I wanted to let them know that even if I wasn't able to show up on a certain day, that I was still really dedicated to my studies and to my program, I have to deal with what I got, the cat doesn't shoot, the cat doesn't show up. They were really, really understanding about that they did not dock me or punish me for things that was out of my control when I was visibly making an effort to communicate that with them, and keep them in the loop. So it wasn't like my cab didn't show up. And then I just didn't go to school. Like I made sure to email them every day that that happens. Like, hey, here we are, again, cabs in show up, I'm so sorry. Please let me know how I can make up my participation points is there like an extra video that I can watch and take notes on and send it to you? They were really accommodating with that kind of stuff we'd love to mention is the fact that my campus was in a snowy area. So I made sure to find paths again that were going to be accessible. But I also talked to not only disability services, but campus security to make sure that my paths were shoveled, salted and well taken care of. And if there was a day where it's like we're in the middle of a snowstorm, and they can't keep up with the sidewalk security gave me their personal cell phone numbers to where I could dial it and be like, Hey, can you send a security person to this building to escort me to my next building so I can get there safely. And they were more than happy to do that. It's just about finding a way to be comfortable advocating for yourself. I think that's the biggest part in navigating college and finding out what you need, because all of our needs are very different. We just all have to be very comfortable about speaking up on that.
Absolutely, absolutely. I have encouraged people time and time and time again, to have good communication with their professors, because that really simplifies your life considerably. It really does. I know Disability Services can assist with specific accommodations. So if you do have a reluctant professor, and they are out there, you do run into that, that disability services can step in on your behalf or with you to solve that problem. So one of the things that people need to realize is that when you get an accommodation from a professor, that is not in writing from disability services, that it's a nice gesture by the professor. But they can change their mind if they need to, or want to. And you're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. Brianna, I'm so glad you had good communication with your professors, especially when transportation issues become such a problem that is totally beyond your control, and 99% of the professor's are going to go along with it, no problem. But there could always be that 1%, that just gives you grief. And so if you run into that problem, Disability Services can help. If you anticipate a problem with transportation, that is a conversation to have with Disability Services ahead of time, because they can actually put an accommodation on your accommodation memos that goes to the professor that addresses that issue. And so if it comes on an on an accommodation memo in writing, then it becomes an official document that the professors are required to follow. If you and the professor work it out on your own, which is always a good thing. But if the professor suddenly changes their mind for one reason or another, then you're kind of stuck. Guilty services would still go to bat for you. You don't doubt it. But it really carries much more weight if it's actually physically in writing on the document. So just an FYI, to people who would be in that situation. Yeah,
yeah, yeah, I agree. And I think that kind of like how I was saying, honestly, it's not even like two weeks before you are going to campus, you really should be looking into disability services, the moment you are looking into the college, even before you send in your application, see what they have for you see how they can help see how well their department works. I've had disability services from one college that was much better and much more easy to work within the second college that I went to. And if you deal with that right off the bat, instead of waiting until you have those transportation issues, or the professor issues or something like that, if you already have that solidified relationship, and you're already working together, it's going to make those other barriers and problems that come along the way much easier to deal with. Absolutely, you know, your professor can be really cool about it until,
until you miss a test, because your kids didn't show up.
That or honestly, I had a professor and they didn't. It was really interesting that we had this conversation after I was no longer there students. So while I was there, student, there was some things between the professor and all of the class the whole class as a whole that you could tell that they were they were stressed and there was something going on. And they were taking it out on the class. And a couple years later, I I'm a tutoring for this college at this point. And I'm helping other kids with math homework. And this professor came in there. And they were saying it was a really rough time for me, I was going through a divorce my partner left me, you know, think about that kind of stuff, right? Not Not that I'm making excuses for this professor by any means. But the fact that I've gone to school for human services, I now understand that everything impacts how a person behaves. So the professor can be really cool with you in the beginning of the term, go through some family stuff, and not be cool about it any more. They could have a low tolerance or more anxiety or something on their plate where they're just like, I'm done. Yeah, and that exactly. Ability services is really the best place to have them first of all relationship.
And another thing that was really helpful for me is having a good relationship with my advisor. I assume most colleges and whether it's a tech school or university, they offer advisors for your program, get to know them, lean on them. Don't be scared to ask them questions. You know if there's a class that you're struggling with, or a professor, talk to your advisor to. I felt very blessed that I had a very, very cool advisor. She worked with me when I was remote at the satellite location. She continued to stay with me when I came onto campus, and even when I transferred from one College to the next she helped me with all of it utilize everything that that college has to offer, whether it's services, the security team that they have there, your advisors, ball with a couple of the groups, I didn't have that choice, you know, when I first started at the smaller location, but when I got to the main campus, I joined the Human Services club. And having those people to rely on made my college experience a little bit easier. I had new people to rely on for transportation, I had people to help me with my homework I had people to do study groups with by getting a little bit more involved.
And that's wonderful that is so so important. You are sharing the experiences to some of the things that I've been saying all along, is checking it out before you even apply to the college. Once you're in there, and then find out that there's an issue, it becomes really problematic for you, if you check it out ahead of time and you read the room, figure out if this is going to be a good place for you or not, especially when you're dealing with your disability issues, whatever they happen to be. For you, it's being in a wheelchair for somebody else, it could be mental health. For somebody else, it could be a learning disability, there's just no way to know exactly how your disability situation is going to be handled by the college. Because according to ADEA law, they all have to accommodate but how they accommodate is determined by each individual College.
And I'm glad that you brought up not only just physical disabilities, but things like mental health and learning disabilities, because I don't think I don't think students really know that things like ADHD qualifies for disability services, like you qualify for extra help you have rights. Because you have this diagnosis on paper, you have rights to a different study room to longer test times. The book isn't working, you can have like an Audio Copy, like there's always options out there. And I it's not
a visible, it's not a visible disability, but it's a real disability. Yeah,
absolutely. And they're just as important. Making sure that someone with ADHD is taken care of as someone with a wheelchair is just as important for that caller, we have such a wide variety of people in the country, and, and there's so many people who don't feel like they have a place to go, they don't have a safe place to feel a part of. And that's what we need to do with the disabled community. And that's, that's kind of why I wanted to talk with you and like share my experiences, because I want others with disabilities to know that it's worth it, it's worth there is going to be barriers, there's going to be hurdles. But when you put yourself in that position to grow, and to really fill your cup, it's it's life changing, is life changing. For me without my college experience, the people that I met, the campus experiences, the events that I got to attend while being there. It all made me who I am right now.
And then I'm just so glad to hear that I want to add to when you were listening disabilities. And this may be important for you with your support at the music festivals that you were talking about this individuals that have substance or alcohol problems, if they are in some sort of, I want to say program because it doesn't have to be a program in in recovery cup recovering Thank you, if a person has an alcohol or substance abuse problem that they are recovering from, that is a legitimate disability. And a lot of people don't realize that there's support out there because recovery is a challenge. And it brings about its own issues day to day. Absolutely continue with recovery. As long as the person is in recovery, they should talk to disability services to find out how they can be supported. So it's just it's another issue to be aware of or another another disability that a lot of people don't realize exists.
Exactly. And I And it's those ones that are overlooked where you know, you're struggling and and there's nothing that can be done. Well, that's why you need to investigate just a little bit more like, even if there is even if the answer is going to be no, there's no harm in going to that college that you're interested in and being like, Hey, how can you help me with XY and Z views that I experienced in my day to day life? how can you support that, you know, let them speak for themselves. Let them you know, try to win you over a little bit. Let them want to talk themselves up. You want to hear about that you want to hear what to do to make you feel included. So give the college the opportunity to include you, you know, it may not be right away in the beginning. I understand that accessibility for any type of disability whether it's physical or not physical, there's going to be time right some people don't realize what disability needs are until they're exposed to them, and a lot of people in the college communities, they're not exposed to people with disabilities, right? So us in the community, we have to be aware that it's gonna take little time and a little bit of grace. But we need to work together. And that's we can educate the college to make the college better for the next students to come or the next semester to come. You know, it's not going to always be perfect. But there is definitely ways to make it better and to help them keep improving
one more thing to there on that topic, and then we'll move on a little bit, but I don't know if you experienced this or not. But when you worked with Disability Services, did you address the issues of personal safety in an emergency situation? Because when when we had individuals who use wheelchairs, and we had classes on a second and third floor, they had to get to a safe place where they can be helped. Elevators couldn't be relied on you have you have to have some sort of a plan in place. Did you experience this? Yes, as part of your college.
Yeah, I did. So as both a student and as an employee, because I went from just being a student, and then I started tutoring on campus as well. So I did drills as both a student and as an employee. So what they would do is depending on because each drill I was in a different location, so it, you know, say at the student drill, I was in one building, and they would just explain what would be the best path for me to go down, and how they would assist me down those stairs, because there is stairs everywhere. And what they did it because my campus was a little bit newer, they had tools to help get students from, I think they have like some carrying devices to help get the students safely second floor down to the first floor. So it wasn't like they had to grab my body or my chair and try to log me down this staircase, there was a there was either some kind of seat to put me in or some kind of strapping device that made it safer to get me from point A to point B. And so they not only did that for like fire drills, but they also did this for if there was like an active shooter on campus. So they they did that as well. Okay, so that they say you're working in the library, and this is the the example that I remember offhand is that we are in the library I was working. And they said, Okay, well, there was an active shooter, we would sneak all of the kids and staff through the store, they would file down the one firework, the staircase, and the same staircase, they're like, right, we have this other left, again, we had almost every staircase, honestly, it was pretty, I got pretty lucky that this is a very accessible campus. And they just told me like, Okay, if this ever happens, we take it on a staircase, we're gonna let everyone file through, so you don't get hurt. And then we're gonna get you down.
That's one of those things that people don't realize until they're in the middle of it. And it's like, oh, my now what? So when you're doing those pre checks that you were talking about when you're talking to disability services, that is definitely another conversation to have with the staff there to see what kind of accessibility you will be dealing with in an emergency situation, or a drill, those kinds of things.
Honestly, I never thought about those kinds of things until the drills are going on. I'm just like,
What do I do? You know,
it's easy for an able-bodied person to run away but themselves, so it meant a lot to me that at least I don't know, if it was like the entire school in general. Or if it was just my co-workers in my library, we were like, Alright, how are we going to get breed safety in an active shooter situation, you know, but it wasn't the doesn't matter who it was. But it just meant the world to me that someone on campus took the time to think about what does breed need in this situation? Exactly. At this time of need, you know, and like I said, I'm not sure if it was like a higher-up college level, or if it was really just my, my really intimate coworkers who took the time to make that plan. But the point of the matter is, is they made it for me and that's, that's what that's really good. So even now that I'm gone, I'm not on campus anymore. I've moved to North Carolina, I still tutor remotely, but now that I'm not even physically on campus anymore. Those moments are still in the minds of the staff that I left behind and that I had tutored, you know, they are going to remember that for the next time they see a student in a wheelchair. Now we know what to do with that, you know?
Yep. So now that you're out of college, what are you doing now? How's your life changed this time?
It was a really big change to not be in college. First of all, because I was in school for eight years and then you go you go from having classes and homework. Exactly. A lot of deadlines for eight years and then you get quit and there's nothing left. There's you're just on your own you're in the free world. So now what exactly I'm And I know for a lot of students, there could be a really awkward transitional period where you're trying to find a job. And it's just like a struggle. But I got, again, I got really lucky. I found a company and a team that fit my my goals and my purpose before I even graduated college. So my senior year of college, I found a nonprofit called wheel with me Foundation. And at the time, they were offering free webinars online, they do it quarterly, so one every season. And that's free webinars that just share other wheelchair users expertise, and acknowledge and experiences with the community. And I'm like, Okay, there's this free event. Why would I say no? Like, I love free resources. And I love connecting. Absolutely, I started attending these events. And this was the first time that I had personally ever even got involved in the disability community. So up until last year, I didn't have other wheelchair friends, I didn't have wheelchair support groups. I was 10 years into my accident before I found the disability community. And once I did, I was like, these are my people.
These are my people I have found my people have and
so finding these webinars and the community, it really pushed me to really push myself I'm like, Alright, I need to do more for myself physically, mentally, for my health and wellness. And I just kept attorney, I kept going to these events. And one day the the founder, her name is Jesse. She was like, What are you doing? Like, what's your life about? And she just asked me a bunch of personal questions. And I got to share with her my educational background and like what I wanted to do and how I wanted to help other people in wheelchairs. And she's like, so you're saying is you want a job, right? You want to work with us? I was like, yeah, absolutely. And like it was a done deal. So last year I started working for with me foundation. Like I said, we host online webinars. We do in person meetups for wheelchair users as we travel, like the last one that we had was the summer in Philadelphia. While we were on a road trip, we just made a little pitstop at a brewery invited a bunch of wheelchair users from the community to get together and meet one another and connect and you know, try to try and meet others that are in their area that they can hang out with once we're gone. And with that Jesse, the founder of the nonprofit she was also doing another side project called bear with me fitness. So she's had the support group since 2017. for wheelchair users who want to be active and fit, and it came down to the point where she was really sick and tired of taking able bodied fitness workouts and having to to adapt them wanted fitness that was made for wheelchair users by users. And that's kind of where we are with me fitness grew from. And last fall, we were lucky to have a an app developer reach out to us and say, Hey, we see what your mission is. And we really want to collaborate with you. So we have now launched the first fitness app for wheelchair users created by wheelchair users. Not only Oh, one, it's the only one out there, there's a fitness app geared toward individuals with wheelchairs. And that is that's a we're really, really proud of that. So we have this app and it has a wide range of exercises and fitness routines. You could you could be a beginner, you can be someone who is like training for competitions. But we're also very mindful about the people who might need a little extra help. You know, there is individuals in chairs who still need caregivers or might need help getting out of bed in the morning. So we have an entire workout section of workouts you can do right in bed. So you don't need to get out of bed. You don't need that caregiver to help you. You can still find fitness in an independent way. But we have the nonprofit and the fitness stuff.
Could you repeat both of those names again, once more nice and loud and clear.
Yeah, the the nonprofit is called wheel with me Foundation. And the fitness app is called wheel with me fitness. And my fitness app is found in both your Apple and Google Store, ready to download. And it's it's really amazing.
Wonderful. And we'll have the links in this podcast in the show notes as well. So you make sure I get all those links to those resources. Oh, yeah, absolutely. Is there anything else that you would like to add that you're doing or that you want to talk about?
We're really excited to just connect with other wheelchair users in the community. That's why we have both of these businesses going that's why we have the nonprofit that's why we have a fitness app is we want other wheelchair users to find spaces where they feel welcome and they feel safe and they feel like they can grow. A fitness app not only focuses on your physical health, but it also focuses on your mental health as well. motivational messages in there. We have guided meditations. We also have a private Facebook group where we do weekly meetings where Jesse and I talk to our members and we try to give some positive personal development information how to how to use the Law of Attraction and manifestation to really drive in your future. And then the last thing that I would like to say is that if you are a wheelchair user in the community, and that you think that you have something value to share, please reach out to us, we are always looking for new speakers to share their knowledge with the community, whether that's about college or housing, or starting a business or getting off disability. If there's anything that you feel that you can add value to, I promise you that you can, and we'd love to hear about it. So reach out to us. And we'd love to collaborate with you, because that's one of our main values with both our nonprofit and our fitness. Business is collaboration. Collaboration is key. We don't want to be the number ones on a top alone, we want all of us to rise together.
There you go. Well, Brianna, thank you so very much. Oh my gosh, this was so wonderful. And so much information for individuals who are in your situation or know somebody in your situation, dealing with those issues. I was thinking as you were talking, I grew up with an uncle, who lived he lived with my grandparents. And I'm not really sure what his disability was, in particular, he, his muscles deteriorated as he aged. I've heard it called a pseudo muscular dystrophy, I don't really know. But I can remember that the mall opened up in our area of town, and the family decided to take him to the mall. Okay, we got there. And I was with him. I remember this very, very clearly. And I was just a kid, I mean, teenager, and we took him to the mall. And we were pushing him in his wheelchair. And you know, we had to leave because he couldn't get in the bathroom. He could not get through the door is not even into the stall. He could not get through the doorway, to the bathroom. Wow, that's really. And so, so passionate about accessibility. I grew up with the lack of accessibility. And I'm so pleased to see that accessibility is becoming commonplace. But that where it's not comp, commonplace, you're there. And your people are there to spread the word, because that's really so very important. So Brianna, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It's just been a wonderful, wonderful,
thank you so much for having me. And I just hope that the listeners find some value. And if they ever need to reach out, you have my information that's attached here, they can reach out to me about anything. If you have college questions or live questions, don't be scared to reach out. I'll be your friend if you need support. That's why I went to school. So thank you so much for having me. And I hope you have a really lovely day.
Thank you, you too. Thank you for joining us today, I will be sure to include all of Brianna has links in today's show notes, including the links for her fitness app, her foundation, her Facebook group, and her Instagram contact. So everything will be in the show notes. Brianna, I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to reach out to me about your story. And like Brianna, if you have a story to share with me, please check my website out Mickey teaches.com where you can tell me what your story is. And maybe you can be a guest on his podcast next time. In the meantime, I hope you have a great rest of the day. And we'll talk again soon. My Information contained throughout this podcast has been gleaned from my own personal experiences, but to ensure accuracy please contact the Disability Services at the college of your choice to have firsthand information and the most up to date policies and procedures followed for your particular institution of higher education. The content in any of these podcasts is not intended as a substitute for information from legal, educational or medical professionals. Always seek the advice of your attorney or qualified health care provider with any questions you may have with regards to illegal educational or medical concerns.
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