At 15 years old, I was unexpectedly paralyzed by the rupture of an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM), a rare disorder in which a weakened blood vessel can break and damage surrounding nerves. In my case, the AVM was located in my spinal cord, resulting in paralysis and my need to use a wheelchair for mobility.
However, the wheelchair did not prevent me from returning to high school, graduating from college, and ultimately having a successful career. I wasn't necessarily prepared for all the challenges using a wheelchair would present, but I was determined to figure out the best way to overcome the unforeseen.
Going away to college was the first time I would be surrounded by people who didn't know me prior to getting paralyzed, and I was a little apprehensive about how I would be perceived. At the University of Florida, I not only learned academics, but also how to prepare myself for a world where a wheelchair was not commonplace.
Upon arrival at the university, a student recommended I join a sorority to meet new people. During the intense pledging process, it was standard procedure to visit many sorority houses and I was a little nervous knowing most of them were not accessible. My first instinct was to gravitate to a house purely on its ease of access; however, the women in all of the houses were enthusiastic about making accommodations for me and the wheelchair did not ultimately have to factor in my decision. Later, most of the women I met in the process admitted that they had never interacted with someone who uses a wheelchair, but they learned a lot about the importance of accessibility.
I learned quickly that wheelchair accessibility was crucial to not only my freedom and independence, but also my career path. Elevators, ramps, and accommodating bathrooms are necessary when I am looking for work; those requirements become just as important and essential to me as career development and salary.
After graduating with a degree in production for media, I moved to Los Angeles. I had pictured Los Angeles as a modern city, very accessible. I was surprised to find it an older city with quite a few places with difficult access.
I wondered if it would be difficult to find a job to accommodate my needs, but I was also determined not to accept a job solely because of the accessibility. I was also looking for a job to fulfill my desires, interests, and goals.
I received a call for a studio manager position at a recording company. From the moment I interviewed it seemed like a perfect fit. The only issue was that the bathroom was not accessible for me and I thought this might be a deal breaker. But the owner said, "Let me think about how I can make this work. I'll call you tomorrow."
He called the next day and asked me to come back in. When I got to the office, he introduced me to a contractor whom he hired to make the bathroom accessible. The job did turn out to be great for my career and I stayed there for four years.
My next job also seemed like a great match during the first interview -- until I learned there were multiple floors and no elevator. They asked me if I thought the wheelchair would affect my ability to perform on the job. I replied not as long as I did not have to go upstairs. My boss replied that it wasn't important -- he felt that the tasks for my job didn't require me to go up there very often. And when I did need to, they just carried me up!
Later, I decided to make a career change, and I extended my education into the graphic design industry. I was offered a great job opportunity, but once again that darn bathroom! My new boss showed me the bathroom and we figured out it was easy to rectify -- we simply reversed the hinges on the stall door.
The funny thing was for the first month, the building's maintenance team must have thought someone was playing a practical joke because they kept reversing the door back to its original state! Once we made them aware the adjustment was for accessibility they even helped reinforce the change.
Most of my career has been working for small businesses where I feel accessibility is more of an issue, considering they do not have the constant public foot traffic and they rarely see people with disabilities in their offices.
One aspect of the workplace that has really helped business owners become aware of their responsibilities is the ADA -- the Americans with Disabilities Act. I realized some of my bosses had researched the ADA rules upon hiring me. The ADA has been crucial in providing key guidelines for building owners and has made great progress in making the world a more accessible place for those with disabilities.
In my experience, I think it also it also helped that the owners were touched by an individual. They met a specific person and were compelled to think differently and make accommodations because of it. I have been fortunate in both college and work to find open-minded individuals who realized even though I use a wheelchair, I am good for business. I work just as hard as anybody else.
My hope is that some day business owners will not have to know someone personally to care about making their environment accessible. Because it helps society, it will be a change they want to make, not feel forced to make.
Mia appears in the critically-acclaimed docu-series Push Girls, which is telecast on the Sundance Channel on Mondays at 10 p.m. et/pt.
Mia Schaikewitz, 33, was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. At age 15, she was a rising star on her high school swim team and training for a new season when suddenly one evening she found herself unable to move her legs. Within 12 hours, doctors discovered that an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) had ruptured in her spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
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