Hannah's Story

Posted Jul 9, 2019 - 1:48pm

By Hannah Foley, PRC-Saltillo Intern & Blogger

Society generally has lower expectations for people with disabilities, both mental and physical disabilities.  Because we navigate the world “differently”, talk “differently”, look “different”, move “differently”, and are viewed as being “different” by society in the many other ways they do, does not mean that people with disabilities are incapable of living a life full of success, fun, happiness, and everything in-between. 

My name is Hannah Foley and I have mixed athetoid cerebral palsy.  My physical disability impacts my fine and gross motor skills, as well as my speech.  I use a power wheelchair for independent mobility and an iPad with the TouchChat with WordPower app for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), in addition to my verbal speech.  Having a physical disability and being dependent upon other people to help you with the most basic needs of everyday life is stressful and challenging in itself. Add on the communication disorder on top of that and people will look at you like you are crazy when you tell them that you go to college and live on campus independently.

I am currently a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying Communication.  I know, people look at me like I am even crazier when I tell them I am a Communication major.  I plan on completing my assistive technology certification at the University of Illinois at Chicago after I receive my undergraduate degree.

They say that students gain only a small portion of their knowledge at college within the classroom and lecture halls. The rest is acquired from new relationships, experiences, and whatever else college throws at you. I always knew that I wanted to go away to college, but I could have never imagined the experiences and life lessons it has given me. The last three years have been filled with many ups and downs, with hundreds of learning and growing experiences in between.

Prior to college, I had lived at home for all eighteen years of my life and my parents were my primary caregivers. I never had to interview, hire, manage, and fire my own personal assistants who are responsible for assisting me with activities of daily living (ADLs).  All of my daily needs were just taken care of.  In college, it’s a whole different story. Although I attend one of the most premier disability friendly institutions in the United States, I am the only student on the University of Illinois campus who  AAC.  Imagine moving to a foreign place where nobody else speaks the same language as you do without your family and close friends.... a little scary, right?!?!?  Now, imagine moving to that foreign place and being completely dependent on other people to take care of you….. how would you feel?  Maybe a little frightened?!?!?

Going away to college for the first time freshman year was quite scary and stressful.  I had so many different emotions going into freshman year; fear, sadness, anxiety, stress, and everything in between. I think that a good part of my stress and anxiety stemmed from living in a brand new place, away from my family and friends, who always knew what I was thinking and what I needed.  I was now being pushed out of my comfort zone to teach complete strangers how to care for me, how to give me a shower, how to feed me, how to take me to the bathroom, and how to perform the various other activities of daily living that I need assistance with. How was I, the person who uses AAC, going to teach others how to do these things so that I could live independently and be a successful college student?

Well, here I am three years later, alive and successful. I guess people who have physical disabilities and use AAC are able to go away to college. College has taught me so much, but the lesson that has changed how I approach life and the challenges it brings, is that no matter how hard something may seem you will overcome obstacles and be successful if you are persistent and are willing to work hard.  Over the last three years, I have learned how to effectively hire, train, and manage my own staff of personal assistants, thanks to Beckwith Residential Support Services, and I now have the necessary skills to move into an apartment and independently hire and manage my own staff.  However, college is not all sunshine and roses. I have dealt with people not showing up to their shifts, which has caused me to miss an exam, not shower, not eat, not go to the bathroom.  These experiences have made me grow in so many different ways, both personally and professionally. I have had professors deny me my academic accommodations, which the University states I need, I have had professors question my ability to give speeches and oral presentations, and so many other things have been questioned if I could be successful at just because I use AAC. It can be frustrating when people are impatient, ignorant, and make hasty assumptions about your intelligence, but remember that YOU are in control and those are great opportunities for you to educate others about disability and how to properly treat people with disabilities. If you take the time to educate others, so many more opportunities for success and equal access to your education, employment, and beyond will come your way.  Self-advocacy has been crucial to my success thus far.

I have had two internships with AAC companies while in college. I am currently the Product & Service Development Intern for PRC-Saltillo, one of the major AAC companies.  I have guest lectured in various special education and speech-language pathology classes at the university level.  Last school year, I was a mentor for the incoming freshmen to Beckwith Residential Support Services at the U of I. Beckwith is a program that houses students with significant physical disabilities and gives them the opportunity to go away to college and live “independently”.  It teaches students how to independently manage their disability and how to hire and manage personal attendants, so that they will be able to transition out of the program into other housing.  I was a teaching assistant for the mandatory class that all first year residents have to take on how to transition to college as a student with a physical disability. I graded assignments and developed lesson plans for what material should be covered throughout the class.

So, to all of the children and teenagers who have a physical disability and use AAC, you can achieve your dreams, you can go to college away from home, you can get a job, you CAN do it. It will take a little extra effort and hard work, but you CAN achieve your goals and attain independence and success in life

To all of the parents, teachers, therapists, and paraprofessionals who work with kids who have a speech impairment and/or a disability, support, encourage, and advocate for them.  Push them out of their comfort zone to try new things. Advocate for them to have social opportunities and for them to be challenged in school and in all aspects of life.  Encourage and support them through difficult times.  New experiences are hard, but they are what fosters growth and development.  With the proper encouragement and support, these growing experiences will change who a person with a disability is and will ensure a bright future for them.

I would not be the person I am today without all of the incredibly amazing people in my life who encourage and support me every step of the way. I have had some of the greatest teachers, paraprofessionals, therapists, personal assistants, family and friends who have influenced my life in so many different ways.  They definitely push me out of my comfort zone to experience new things, but they are always there to support me and help me through difficult times along the way.

I am forever grateful for all of the amazing people in my life and all of the incredible experiences that I have had thus far. I can’t wait to see where my journey takes me next! 

Communicators In Action  -    aac, device user, hannah, foley, intern, college, education