Instructor, new minor dispel myths about people with disabilities

Matthew Wangeman welcomes students to his class with sparkling blue eyes and a big smile. Dressed in black slacks and a dress shirt, he also wears a bicycle helmet fitted with a long pointer as he sits in a wheelchair equipped with a letter board.

Matthew Wangeman lecturing a class
Matthew Wangeman, center, uses a letter board while lecturing with interpreter John McDermott, left, and co-teacher Katherine Mahosky during an Introduction to Disability Studies class session.

“The world of disabilities is still very hidden so with this class we hope to uncover it,” Wangeman said. “We want to show that people with disabilities are not that different and it is the society that puts assumptions on people with disabilities.”

With little control over most of his body, Wangeman uses his head and helmet to point across the letter board to form sentences and communicate with his students. Interpreter John McDermott vocalizes his sentences, but Wangeman engages students through eye contact, smiles and grunts of approval.

Wangeman is very visible as an instructor for DIS 201, Introduction to Disability Studies, a 20-year disability advocate and an individual with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and a nonverbal form of communication. By teaching he hopes to not only afford students real life interaction with a person who has a significant disability but also give them insight into what he wants out of life and how he is achieving that.

Katherine Mahosky, Wangeman’s good friend and colleague, co-teaches the introductory course with him and coordinates a new disability studies minor offered through NAU’s Institute for Human Development.

Mahosky, who also is a doctorate student at NAU, brings more than 30 years of speech pathology experience to the program. She wants to show that “if you expose students to the capabilities of people with disabilities, attitudes will start to change.”

The pair hopes to “dispel the myth that people with disabilities are tragic” by increasing students’ understanding of the world of disability.

“How better to do that than to have a person with a disability contribute and share their experiences,” Mahosky said. “People are fearful of what they don’t know or understand. This isn’t something to fear. Yes there are challenges, but you can still get a job, have a good time, have a family and just live life.”

Letter board
Wangeman’s letter board is a series of words, letters and numbers that allow him to communicate by pointing across the board with his modified helmet.

The Institute for Human Development created a disability studies minor to encourage students to explore the historic and legal treatment of people with disabilities, acquire an awareness and understanding of the role disability plays in today’s society, and examine their own attitudes toward disability while reflecting on the construct of “normality” and the ways this concept has shaped the understanding of disability. Wangeman is a prime example. With a master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley, his position with NAU and good health, he is able to share a comfortable life with his son Elijah and Elijah’s mother. And his disposition exudes that happiness.

The minor was designed to address “attitudinal” barriers—an area needing attention based on a 2006 Arizona survey of people with disabilities. It is just one part of a two-tier approach to heighten the community’s awareness and understanding of disability and bring about a level of comfort for individuals interacting with people with disabilities.

Mahosky and Wangeman encourage all majors to consider a disability studies minor. The 18 unit minor has a face-to-face introductory and capstone class, three online classes and an elective. Students also are welcome to take the introductory course as a liberal study.

Almost every profession, from journalists to police officers, historians to lawyers, web designers to financial advisers, will encounter people with disabilities, Wangeman said. This class and minor present the issue from multiple perspectives, preparing students to interact comfortably with all people.

“Teaching together provides a really a nice interplay,” Mahosky said. “I can talk about disability from my professional experience, as an expert looking in, and Matthew can talk about disability from his professional and personal experience, from the inside looking out.”