Anti-ableism advocate seeks parity, not pity

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Senior Kendra Muller-Taylor graduates this semester with a major in psychology and a minor in business management. She plans to study law to specialize in international disability rights. (Jessica Smith)

Kendra Muller-Taylor said she wants the world to know she is not an inspiration.

“I want everyone to see disability as nothing more than diversity,” she said.

Taylor is 21 years old and finishing a major in psychology and a minor in business management by the end of this semester. She is not only approaching her graduation, but the eighth anniversary of becoming paralyzed in her legs.

At an end-of-the-year party in 2011 with her classmates, Muller-Taylor was piled in a hammock with a group of friends. The hammock was tied to a faulty brick column on the house that collapsed in an unlikely accident, falling onto her body while her other friends scrambled out of the way.

Taylor said medical professionals do not expect her body to ever fully recover.

Having lived half her life able-bodied and the other half confined to her chair, Muller-Taylor said her eyes are open to the discrimination disabled people face every day.

Taylor said she recently went on a late-night trip to the grocery store just wanting to buy some fruit snacks. As she scanned the aisles, someone tapped her on the shoulder and said something that she’s told nearly every time she leaves her house: “You are so inspiring.”

“I just got out of bed to go to the grocery store,” Muller-Taylor said. “When I ask them, ‘What’s inspiring about this?’ they respond, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s ableism. They think it’s inspiring, but they don’t know why.”

Ableism, Muller-Taylor explained, exists in anyone who thinks disability means being less than a normal human being. As a result, discrimination can come in many forms, even from individuals with innocent intentions.

“All my life before my accident, I had internal feelings of pity for somebody in a wheelchair, so I know that’s what people are feeling around me,” Muller-Taylor said. “As of right now, I’d love to change that stigma.”

Now preparing to attend law school to specialize in international disability rights, Muller-Taylor said if people realized the daily struggles of the disabled, they would want to become advocates, too.

According to a 2017 study by the National Disability Institute, adults with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be impoverished as adults without a disability. Muller-Taylor said her personal experience has taught her the daily medical supplies and treatments needed to sustain disabled persons are enough to quickly empty their bank accounts.

“In my life, I have so many medical expenses that if I didn’t have insurance, just living day to day would literally be thousands of dollars a day,” Muller-Taylor said. “My wheelchair costs $20,000, and it isn’t even a fully-powered chair.”

In addition to poverty risks, Muller-Taylor said disabled women are more vulnerable to abuse than able-bodied women. Women who are disabled are reported to be three times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those without disabilities, according to research published by the Human Rights Watch in 2015. NPR reported in 2018 people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

Even in the rush of popularity the #MeToo movement received, Muller-Taylor said she fears those most vulnerable to sexual assault are still being overlooked. She expressed dismay that while a great deal has been said against sexism and racism across the country, little awareness is ever raised for disabled demographics.

“Disability is just as important as your gender or your race,” Muller-Taylor said.

Media portrayals perpetuate misinformation in plot lines so predictable now that they have almost become cliché, Muller-Taylor said. Hollywood, she said, relies on two extremes: the disabled character that wastes away like a vegetable or the god-like story of incredible inspiration. She said this sends a destructive message that being disabled means either your life is over or its purpose is to inspire able-bodied viewers.

The other tragedy in Hollywood is that most disabled character roles are only offered to able-bodied actors, she said.

“What’s up with that?” Muller-Taylor said. “If you have a quadriplegic in a movie, get a quadriplegic to play in that movie. They’d know how to do it.”

In movies, movements and the making of legislation, Muller-Taylor insists people with disabilities deserve a voice. The more disabilities are normalized on effective platforms, she claimed, the more stereotypes will disappear. 

Erin Nightingale is an interdisciplinary humanities major from Ogden. Another member of the disabled community, Nightingale is blind. From her personal experience, she noted  people tend to associate physical disability with intellectual disability. This, she claims, only perpetuates the idea that disabled people would not know what to do with a platform even if it was given to them.

“A lot of times, people just kind of avoid us,” Nightingale said. “People assume we can’t speak for ourselves.”

Despite the fact that mental disabilities are sometimes connected to physical disabilities, Muller-Taylor said, those individuals should still be seen as a competent part of society deserving a voice and representation. The more normalized their presence becomes in public spheres, she and Nightingale said, the more stereotypes will disappear.

Muller-Taylor said she has had a difficult time pursuing her educational dreams. Initially, she received many disparaging comments from friends and neighbors when she revealed her plans. People were shocked to discover her intention to go to college — especially at an institution like BYU.

Taylor said despite an incredibly supportive student body social experience during her time at BYU, the physical barriers have been enough to make even basic tasks, like entering buildings, a stumbling block. Sometimes, she said, she is even unable to find a bathroom she can use.

Muller-Taylor’s husband, Topher Muller-Taylor, explained while most BYU students intend to be friendly and accommodating, at times they can come across as belittling or condescending in their efforts to serve.

“I think BYU students see people with disabilities as service opportunities simply because they move around differently than most students,” Topher Muller-Taylor said. “In my opinion, the best thing students can do is to actually spend time getting to know people with disabilities the way they would get to know anybody else.”

Topher Muller-Taylor said he and his wife were both passionate about social justice and equality from the start of their friendship. That shared interest led to a sweet love and a powerful partnership in marriage that he said has only opened his eyes more to the struggles people with disabilities face.

“Kendra is incredibly passionate about making society a more accepting place for disabled people,” he said. “Getting married to her has definitely made me realize so many of the issues that sadly aren’t understood by most of us who aren’t disabled.”

Kendra Muller-Taylor urged her peers at BYU to understand that they can advocate for disability rights on campus, as well as in the world at large. Her story, she claimed, should not be inspiration as much as it should indicate changes must be made. Taylor said she and her disabled peers deserve as much attention as any other demographic.

“I hate when people use the term ‘special needs’ or ‘special accommodations,’” Kendra Mueller-Taylor said. “We’re not asking for special rights. We’re asking for equal rights.”

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