Matthew Wangeman, BS 92, wants to change how you think about disability
Once a semester, Matthew Wangeman invites students at Northern Arizona University (NAU), where he teaches, to ask him anything about his life. anything at all.
Wangeman is a father, lecturer, sports lover, and disability advocate with multiple degrees from UC Berkeley. He also happens to have cerebral palsy, a motor condition caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during birth. He uses a wheelchair and is unable to speak, instead communicating via computer or by tapping letters and words with a stylus attached to a bicycle helmet.
He calls the campus event “A Conversation About Disability: Everything You Always Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask.” Wangeman relies on his rapier wit to put his audience at ease. “I like to say I am a sit-down comic,” he says. Like telling the crowd how he had speech therapy for 10 years: “Look at me talk!”
He begins the event by showing a 6-minute documentary of his life, My Dad Matthew. The award-winning film, which has been shown at 17 festivals, is narrated by his voluble and precocious son, Elijah, who wondered, when he was seven, when he would be getting his own wheelchair to match his dad’s. Invariably, someone asks Wangeman how he was able to father the now 17-year-old Elijah.
“My answer to that question is, it happened the old-fashioned way,” says Wangeman, who met Elijah’s mother at a street fair in Berkeley. “Luckily, everything works down there. I think disability scares people to their core due to the fact that we, as humans, think we are perfect and are the dominant species on this planet.”
“Disability is just a natural part of life and is not a tragedy. It’s how people think about disabilities that is the tragedy._”
To help change attitudes about those with disabilities, Wangeman co-created a disability studies minor at his Flagstaff campus in 2010. It’s one of NAU’s most popular minors, with around 135 students currently enrolled in coursework. Nationwide, there are no more than 15 such minors, says Wangeman; Berkeley is among the universities with a program.
“Students in our disability studies minor learn that disability is just a natural part of life and is not a tragedy,” says Wangeman, who co-teaches two courses. “It’s how people think about disabilities that is the tragedy. I want my students to become advocates for people with disabilities, and I see my job as making that happen.”
Student Micaela Muehlich says Wangeman’s openness and uplifting demeanor allow the class to feel comfortable confronting their own misconceptions about disability. “Everything that he has to say, it’s never negative,” she says. “It’s always, ‘learn from this; this is what makes life so great.’ But then also he has that component of ‘Look, we are discriminated against. We are stigmatized. This is what you all need to learn about, and this is what’s going to make our country so great.’”
Wangeman’s advocacy is influenced in part by a 2006 Arizona survey in which respondents with disabilities were asked to name the barriers that they and their families face on a daily basis. The number one obstacle? Attitudes that the public holds toward those with disabilities.
People with disabilities constitute the nation’s and the world’s largest minority group—one any of us can became a member of at any time._
Take, for example, the commonly used phrase wheelchair bound. “This thinking is a form of ableism that says walking is much better than using a wheelchair,” says Wangeman. “If I didn’t have a wheelchair I would literally be confined to my bed. I think most people without a disability could never fully grasp how truly liberating wheelchairs are for people who rely on them. There are many ways to move within the world. Who’s to say what is best?”
Instead, says Wangeman, we should celebrate how people with disabilities can adapt to a world that values able-bodiedness and question why it should be rare for them to have the same opportunities in life as other people. “It’s my job to help people overcome how they think about disability and to see the intrinsic value of all people,” says Wangeman.
For some aspects of life, that’s still a tall order. Despite Wangeman’s Berkeley pedigree—he has a bachelor’s in business, a master’s in city planning, and completed some PhD coursework in public health—he only makes about $13,000 a year. The irony is that if he made more, he’d lose much-needed services, like his mostly 24-hour care. Financially, he can never marry or own his own house (it’s in his brother’s name). “Some laws are slowly changing for the better,” Wangeman says. “But for the most part, people with significant disabilities who need services to live independently are not really allowed to make that much money or even have savings. It’s a messed-up system.”
Wangeman, though, has been more fortunate than most. Even getting to college, a success he attributes to his stubbornness, is a rarity for many with considerable challenges. During Wangeman’s student years, Berkeley had a unique program for those with significant disabilities, providing him round-the-clock aides. The program has since been eliminated and no other program like it exists in the country.
It’s a shame since Berkeley has been a catalyst to his dream job, a son he adores, and a platform for changing the lives of hundreds of students. “I have lived a pretty remarkable life for someone with significant disabilities,” says Wangeman. “When people ask how I overcame my disability, I usually reply that I absolutely have not overcome my disability because my disability is just a part of who I am.”
Another part of who he is? A proud Berkeley alumnus. “Every time I go into a classroom to teach, I bring my Berkeley experience with me and try to change the world.”