“I have the ability to walk, but only for short distances,” said 24-year-old Minnesotan Melanie Davis in a telephone interview. She was born with cerebral palsy and a mild hearing impairment and has used a manual wheelchair since about seventh grade. She is also a senior majoring in political science with a minor in philosophy at Minnesota State University, with the goal of one day becoming a disability consultant to help people on Americans with Disabilities Act issues.
The United Cerebral Palsy website reports more than 750,000 Americans having some degree of cerebral palsy, which is caused by brain damage occurring before, during or shortly after birth. It affects the brain’s ability to control muscle movement and usually doesn’t affect intelligence.
Currently, cerebral palsy seems the least of Davis’ concerns. “Recently, I have been dealing with social anxiety issues and my psychologist doesn’t fully understand it,” she said. “I get really afraid crossing streets in my wheelchair because I think drivers aren’t going to see me or I am not going to cross the street fast enough. And while going down curb cuts, I think I’m going to tip over and eventually my fear develops into a panic attack.”
Her fears make a great deal of sense, especially given her mild hearing impairment and manual wheelchair use. And having those fears has led to a career change. She had wanted to be a lawyer, but feared having to navigate the large campuses in her state that have law schools.
“There are even parts of this campus I can’t get to alone (because of my fears),” she said. “So I have to get help from personal care attendants or university disability services.” On one occasion, she said, she stayed up all night panicking about having to visit a certain campus location alone. She does her best trying to recruit people to accompany her.
After graduation, Davis will probably rejoin the Americorps program. Her first stint lasted two years. With it, she spent time educating people about disability inclusion and awareness, worked in early intervention alongside children with autism, and became familiar with how the disability rights movement started.
She advised, “The only way to make change is to start speaking up for yourself. Doing that is probably one of the hardest struggles for most people with a disability. But the louder you are, the better you will be heard.”