BYU communications student Daniel Andersen was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy when he was 2 years old. The disease causes general muscle weakness, so he cannot walk. He also has a weaker respiratory system and finds it difficult to write or type for a long time because of stamina issues.
For BYU students with a variety of physical disabilities, it can be difficult navigating school, social events and life in general.
“Unfortunately, the disability community across the nation, and across the world, is a forgotten and largely misunderstood community,” Andersen said.
Andersen said the disability community is usually highly stigmatized and often not included in conversations of diversity and inclusion.
Students with physical disabilities often have many struggles that most physically able students do not have to face, including having difficulty studying or finishing assignments before the deadline assigned by professors.
“If I got sick, some professors would be very accommodating of the request for the deadline day to be moved back a week or so. However, some professors were not very flexible. They believed that if they make it easier for one student, then it’s unfair for the other students in the class,” Andersen said.
Andersen said students who have disabilities are essentially at the mercy of their professors, and the grade they get is dependent on the professor’s leniency and understanding of their circumstances.
However, Andersen said “BYU has made some really good strides recently in trying to improve accessibility and the quality of resources available to students with disabilities.”
The University Accessibility Center is a resource available to all students who have any disability that affects their education experience.
“The UAC seeks to foster an environment where disability is viewed as a valued aspect of human diversity. The entire university has the responsibility and opportunity to work towards that vision, and there are efforts being made across campus to ensure that this occurs,” said Clay Frandsen, University Accessibility Center director.
BYU alumna Kylie Webster said there seems to be a slight disconnect with BYU’s resources that are available for students with disabilities, and there is always room for improvement.
“I get sick and physically can’t get out of bed because of my disability, and it’s really hard when professors would get frustrated if I was late or had a hard time turning in an assignment later,” Webster said.
Webster was diagnosed at the age of 5 with Leigh’s Disease, a neurological disorder that makes it difficult for her to walk. Recently she was able to hike Y Mountain, a feat made possible through her perseverance and the help of her friends at the BYU Alumni Association.
When asked about her experience of being able to achieve her dream of hiking to the Y, Webster said it was an emotional journey of training and walking long distances every day for this specific moment.
“There’s a lot of emotions. I was really proud of myself because I didn’t think I could have done what I did. I felt like ‘impossible’ is really nothing; if you want something bad enough you can make it happen,” she said.
One of Webster’s good friends, BYU student Savannah Heath, was able to help her up to the Y. Heath said she admires Webster for her example of willpower, strength, determination and persistence.
“She deserves everything — including every opportunity. She’s not limited by her circumstances,” Heath said. “It’s important for people to know that her disability doesn’t define who she is. She can do just as much as we can, but do it in a different way than us sometimes.”
Heath believes just because someone may look different on the outside, it’s crucial that people break down the barriers, walls and mindset of being different.
“We should see each other as we really are; seeing each other for our hearts and souls, not for anything outwardly or inwardly that can sometimes be seen as a limitation,” Heath said.