Castleton University has always been a campus that prides itself on its acceptance of diversity; at least that’s what one student thought, until she was welcomed last year by anything but acceptance.
Ashlee Brady-Kelly is a junior who transferred to Castleton in the Spring of 2016. She is a social work major who has an incredible journalistic talent, a knack for making people smile and is an individual with disabilities.
Brady-Kelly was diagnosed with chronic cerebral palsy when she was 3 years old.
Cerebral palsy is a neuromuscular disorder that affects certain extremities of the body with profound weakness, but she doesn’t let that stop her from living her life to the fullest.
“It doesn’t affect my ability to live. I don’t have to live in a facility where professionals have to take care of me and do my daily living needs, so I’m really lucky,” said Brady-Kelly with a grin.
During the first couple months after her initial arrival, she was greeted with strange looks, rude comments and pure ignorance.
Brady-Kelly recalls an incident earlier in the semester that didn’t sit well with her. She was heading back to her dorm, enjoying herself and soaking in the sunshine, when someone came up behind her in an obvious hurry.
Paying no mind to this person, she went about her business. Moments after, they proceeded to swerve around her in a very rude fashion, and even uttered the words “bitch” in the process of doing so.
Recently, she was part of a class discussion about sterilization and human reproduction. A member of the class responded by saying “people with disabilities are the weakest of the population, so they should not be able to reproduce.”
“My initial response was shock. I couldn't believe that in this day and age someone would even think like that,” said Brady-Kelly.
In another isolated incident, one student even asked Brady-Kelly to go to the back of the Coffee Cottage as her wheelchair “takes up too much space.”
Some students even turned to the anonymous site “Yik Yak” to express their confusion.
According to Brady-Kelly, the original “Yik Yak” post directed toward her went something like; If you see someone in a wheelchair struggling to get up a hill, you either have two options: help them or get out of their way.
“I mean it’s accurate because most people are not spatially aware of the chair, so I will try and go off the path to let people walk by me, although they have working legs so I don't know why I do that, but the comments that followed after that were extremely petty,” said Brady-Kelly.
An anonymous poster commented that they were surprised she even got into college being in a wheelchair.
“I don't understand how my mental capacity has anything to do with my physical limitations, but anyway,” said Brady-Kelly with a sneer. “To be fair, most of campus is okay. That being said, there is a tiny population that is just very selfish, and doesn’t consider what my life looks like outside of their own.”
But Brady-Kelly isn’t going to let other people get her down, so she’s taking it with a grain of salt.
“At the end of the day, if I sat here and got mad at every stupid thing that happened, or things that people genuinely don't understand, I would live most of my life angry.”
Joseph Cava, a junior business administration major and a good friend of Brady-Kelly, is appalled that this type of behavior still occurs today, especially on our own campus.
“It’s definitely not the Castleton way as President Wolk would describe it, and I just couldn’t believe that even in a state like Vermont, people were capable of being so mean and volatile,” said Cava.
Brady-Kelly is not alone, as another student on campus shares the same condition as her.
Dillon Danyew, a senior business marketing major, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after his birth. He was born 3 months premature, which ultimately lead to his complications.
At 10 years old, Danyew underwent major surgery on both of his legs to loosen his hip flexers, which improved his balance. After many months of physical training he eventually learned how to walk again.
According to Danyew, he is “blessed” to say that he has never had a problem with intolerance on campus.
“Even when I was a freshman, I’ve always seemed liked by many and had a good group of friends to hangout with,” he said. “It makes me feel really upset that people were making fun of her, and should feel ashamed for what they did, considering the fact that having a disability is not a choice.”
Danyew does not want people to feel sympathy for individuals with disabilities. He speaks for all people living with a disability when he says he, “just wants to be treated like any other person.”
“I always consider myself lucky. If I do come across a hard time in life, I always tell myself ‘someone is struggling harder than you today, so suck it up and keep moving forward.’” said Danyew.
As President David Wolk believes this is a campus that holds great pride in being open-minded and respectful, he was astonished and “deeply-saddened” to hear that something so indignant could occur on our very own campus.
“It breaks my heart that there would be even one disrespectful or insulting comment,” said Wolk. “In regards to ‘Yik Yak,’ I think that it invites cowardly people to make negative comments about others anonymously, and there should be no room for that on our campus, or in our wider culture.”
President Wolk hopes that Brady-Kelly’s courage to speak out against intolerance will be a learning experience for everyone around her.