Against all odds
Against all odds

By Kimberly Edwards

Liz Persaud never thought of her disability as a disadvantage. The sophomore at Georgia State University in Atlanta has been an advocate for disabilities rights since she was a young child growing up in New York.

She has spoken to numerous high school and college students about muscular dystrophy (MD) throughout Atlanta, and has participated in the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Weekend Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association since she was eight.

Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, one of the 40 characteristics of muscular dystrophy, at nine months, Persaud has never been able to walk on her own. MD is a disease, which weakens one's muscles and prohibits body movement in most cases. At the age of nine, doctors performed a spinal infusion operation on her, which placed two metal rods on her vertebrae to strengthen and straighten her back. When she was born, she says, her spinal cord was curved at a 60-degree angle. "When I finally had the operation, the doctors said I grew two inches," Persaud laughs.

"As the elevator stopped and I tried to back out, my wheels got trapped when I was moving backwards. I couldn't get my wheels to move. I began to lean backwards. ...I would have [fallen] if he wasn't there."

physically challenged student at Georgia State University

Her obstacle in life hasn't stopped her from setting goals like most 21-year-olds. Achieving them just takes a bit more perseverance and drive than it does for most people her age.

One of those goals is going to college -- something most young people take for granted. For Persaud, here's where the perseverance kicks in. Since she uses a wheelchair to get around, she has to depend on Atlanta's MARTA system to get to and from school everyday. MARTA is a van service that provides transportation to the elderly and disabled. She says this can be pretty frustrating.

"I'm not the only person who uses the services, and the scheduling for their arrival to my house is not always consistent," she says. "Sometimes, they will pick me up at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. and one time they wanted to pick me up at 5 a.m. That is when I get frustrated and angry because I'm unable to drive."

Persaud, who is admittedly not a morning person, has to make daily sacrifices just to get to and from campus - something most college students don't even bat an eyelash at. "I have a 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I have to wake up at 5 a.m. most of the times because the van has other stops. My schoolwork is very important to me so I have to do what I have to do."

Once the sociology major is on campus, getting to class can be a difficult task. Georgia State, she says, has reasonable access for the handicapped throughout the school, but sometimes it can get scary. "One time I was trying to get to class by taking a very narrow elevator. I had no choice, and as I rolled into it, I realized there was no room for me to turn around," she recalls. "As the elevator stopped and I tried to back out, my wheels got trapped when I was moving backwards. I couldn't get my wheels to move. I began to lean backwards, but luckily a guy passed by and helped me. I would have [fallen] if he wasn't there."

Despite all of the obstacles Persaud faces just to get to campus and class, she refuses to let her disability rule her life as a college student. She says she thinks of herself as a very independent person who just happens to be in a wheelchair. "I have to be dependent on people, but everyone is dependent on others sometimes."

Most universities and colleges offer personal services for physically challenged students, by catering to their particular need or disability. Persaud, like other students in her situation, takes advantage of this because it helps level the playing field with her classmates. Carolyn Gergley, director of the Margaret Staton Office of Disabilities Services on Georgia's campus, says it's great to know it's there for those students who need it. But not everyone takes advantage.

"I don't want any special treatment because I'm disabled. Just equal treatment."

physically challenged student at Georgia State University

"There are a lot of disabled students on this campus [who] do not use this service," says Gergley. "A lot are very independent individuals who don't need this service." She also points out that there are disabled students walking around campus that may not always appear disabled. "The majority of our clients are non-visible," says Gergley. "Many students have learning disabilities; some might be deaf or partially blind, and do not use a cane. You'll never know a disabled person unless they were in a wheelchair."

Persaud, who does need the service, goes to the office, which can be used for testing, tutoring and other services, every day to prepare for classes. Since her bodily movements are minimal, she has to place her books on a tray in front of her wheelchair.

Once she's in class, she is able to take notes, but, again, that's something that can be difficult to endure, especially if the professor goes on ad nauseam. However when it comes to her schoolwork, she let's her professors know in the beginning what she needs. "Sometimes I can be pushy, and I let them know what I need, what I'm able to do and not do, and ask them what they need from me," she says. "I don't want any special treatment because I'm disabled. Just equal treatment."

Persaud says she gets her spunk and independence from her support system of family and friends. "My parents have never treated me any differently, it's not an issue." She remembers times when she was younger, when she did get frustrated, that she couldn't do what the other children did. "I recall when my friends were swinging on the swings, I would just sit next to them and talk. When we used to play in the sandbox, my parents would take a Tupperware bowl and place sand in the bowl so I could play with it."

Persaud's ultimate goal is to become a transition counselor to help disabled high school students adjust to college. Her activism in the disabled community has led her to receive the state of Georgia Muscular Dystrophy Personal Achievement Award last September.

Persaud wants disabled persons and those who aren't disabled to realize a disability isn't a burden on life and an excuse to give up on it. "It's important for others to be aware of disabled people, and disabled people to realize it is nothing to be ashamed of because you're in a wheelchair. You shouldn't miss out on life because of that."