Bryant fighting for freedom

Richard Kelly

Being born close to three months early, Washburn senior Shawn Bryant was at risk for complications.

Born June 13 rather than the expected due date of Sept. 9, Bryant ended up diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at birth.

While Bryant has “one of the mildest cases in the record books,” the condition prevented necessary oxygen to his brain, causing paralysis, which means a complete loss of muscle function in one or more muscle.

More severe cases can cause mental retardation and a shorter lifespan. But Bryant does not expect a shorter lifespan himself because of the disability.

Growing up, Bryant didn’t live his life much differently because of it.

“For me it was really different in comparison to stories I hear now with young people with disabilities,” said Bryant. “I didn’t notice any difference between myself and my friends. My parents were very active in my childhood and my upbringing. There were of course times where I felt different, but never any times where my peers made me feel less than them because I was different.”

A Leavenworth native, Bryant came to Washburn in 2006 and originally planned to pursue an education degree.

However, Carnegie Hall provides little access for students with disabilities. This didn’t sit well in his thought of an education department’s message.

“I challenged [my major] because Carnegie is not accessible and I don’t want to learn like that,” said Bryant. “It was just very different for me to say ‘yes, I’m an education major and I’m not able to get into the classroom that I’m supposed to learn to teach other people to learn from so that I can learn.’ It was just really surreal to me.”

Bryant, now majoring in political science, would like to work with international advocacy groups to raise awareness for people with disabilities. He described a tribe in Ghana where children with disabilities are thrown out into wildlife, because they aren’t considered to have a contribution. His idea is to change that thought process.

But perceptions of himself are fairly average according to Bryant, because of the way he has learned to carry himself.

“I think it’s all about your personality and how you present yourself and who you define yourself as,” said Bryant. “If you define yourself as a disabled person, then that kind of says who you are. But if you define yourself as a person with a disability, putting yourself first instead of the disability, then that says a lot about your character and who you are as a person. People will notice you before they notice your impairment.”

Marsha Carrasco Cooper, director of Washburn Student Activities and Greek Life, has known Bryant the last four years. The two originally met at an annual leadership retreat for Washburn students, where she wanted to know more about him and his disability so she could better accommodate to him at the retreat.

Bryant then got involved with the Campus Activities Board, which Carrasco Cooper advises. He was part of a community relations aspect, which is no longer a designated title with the organization. Bryant worked to bring a disability awareness day to campus, allowing for high school students with disabilities to be partnered with a Washburn student for a day.

They now have a strong friendship and Carrasco Cooper knows he is someone who does not let anything stop him. But she sometimes has to remind him of constraints as well.

“As long as he’s able to live the life that he wants to live, then I think that that’s great,” said Carrasco Cooper. “But I think that sometimes too it’s important to know your limitations and how to take care of yourself. I get on him a little bit when he’s outside walking in the ice. I trip and fall on the ice all the time. He just needs to be extra special careful.”

When a Living Learning Center elevator caught fire on Oct. 18, 2008, Bryant’s room was right next to that ignited elevator. According to him, the rule is that fire alarms mean that elevators aren’t meant to be used, but that was the only option for Bryant. But with his closest elevator on fire, Bryant was put in an awkward position.

He also coupled this story with a tornado experience in the Washburn Village, stating that when students were sent down a flight of stairs to the basement for shelter, Bryant had no access due to inaccessibility in a wheelchair. Bryant didn’t have many options given since he couldn’t go down the stairs.

“The solutions given to me were to stay in my room and put my mattress over my head in my bathroom, to move back up into the LLC, or to sit in the [Village] lobby by myself,” said Bryant.

An electronic ramp can’t be installed on the stairwell because it was too narrow, according to him and a problem for the university may be sufficient funds.

However, Carrasco Cooper does think Washburn’s heading in the right direction with accommodations, despite Bryant’s original struggles with Carnegie.

“I do remember him mentioning that [Carnegie provided insufficient access] and I encouraged him to tell our student services office,” said Carrasco Cooper. “I know that there are other issues with that building as well. I think slowly, but surely, we are updating all of our buildings and unfortunately, Carnegie’s one of our oldest and last to be updated, but I have no doubt that we are going to be able to [update].”

Bryant knows in the grand scheme of things, he’s just attempting to live life the way he wants to and does not identify himself by his Cerebral Palsy. In fact, he advocates people do just the opposite.

“I think we are in a society that we like to throw ourselves to pity parties and that’s boring and that’s not attractive and that’s not cute,” said Bryant.

Furthermore, Bryant just wants to be recognized by the fact he’s living much of the way others do, not that he’s so much more extraordinary than others. He challenges others to look at everyone a fairly consistent way.

“People ask me these types of questions about my lifestyle and I’m thinking ‘I’m doing everything you’re doing,'” said Bryant. “I’m going to school, so what? You’re going to school. I’m going to a party, so what? You’re going to a party. I don’t think there’s anything extraordinary I do, so it does kind of surprise me. But if me living my everyday life and trying to live my best life inspires someone, then so be it.”

And when Bryant leaves Washburn, Carrasco Cooper knows he’ll be missed.

“He’s going to create a vacuum for sure,” said Carrasco Cooper. “There’s going to be a void when Shawn Bryant is no longer on campus. I can hear him coming down the hall from like ten miles away, so I prepare myself before he walks in my office, because I know we’re going to have a great time and talk for a long time. I have seen him mature a lot over the last few years.”