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This Georgetown sophomore wants to change how we view and talk about disabilities

Anna Landre, a sophomore at Georgetown University, is trying to change how people think and talk about disabilities.
Anna Landre, a sophomore at Georgetown University, is trying to change how people think and talk about disabilities. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

From her wheelchair, Anna Landre can only see the top half of the ad, but it’s enough to make her stop in the middle of a walkway on Georgetown University’s campus. It shows a boy with one leg wearing a baseball uniform.

Landre points it out to me and then tries to guess what words sit below that image.

“I bet it says something like, ‘What’s your excuse?’ ” she says.

“Close,” I tell her after leaning over a short wall to read it. “It says, ‘Overcoming.’ ”

Landre rolls her eyes.

Where many people might see an inspirational message, Landre sees a cliche. She sees another missed chance at changing the conversation about people with disabilities.

Even that phrase “people with disabilities” bothers her. She prefers to say “disabled people.”

Landre knows that runs counter to what many people believe is respectful. Disability organizations and advocates for years have pushed for the use of “person-first language,” which calls for introducing the individual before the disability.

But Landre, who has spinal muscular atrophy type 2 and has been in a wheelchair most of her life, wants you to call her “a disabled woman.” She wants you to see her disability as more than a medical determination.

She wants you to view it as part of her identity, just like race and gender.

“I take pride in my disability,” she says. “It gives me a certain strength. I don’t see it as a deficit or a problem.”

I didn’t plan on meeting with Landre to discuss language, but here we are, on the campus, talking about identity because it sits at the core of what the 20-year-old Georgetown sophomore is trying to do: change the way people think about disabilities.

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As a society, we have moved away from one that used to institutionalize disabled people toward one that embraces the belief that everyone deserves the chance to live as independently as possible. But that belief is balanced on a foundation that has tiny fissures and gaping holes. To see that, we just have to look at what college has been like so far for Landre, who has pointed out those cracks and chasms ever since she arrived at Georgetown two years ago.

In many ways, she is a typical college student. She spends her days studying and socializing. But Landre has also become a regular writer for her school newspaper, has been elected to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the Georgetown area and has advocated privately and publicly for things that most of her peers don’t even notice, let alone have to worry about.

Some days, that has meant asking facilities to fix an automatic door that doesn’t open as it should.

Other days, it has required her to appeal to officials to not reduce the number of hours she can pay for aides to help her live independently.

“Toward the end of last summer, I stopped drinking coffee in the morning,” Landre wrote in one of her pieces for the Hoya. “It wasn’t, as one of my co-workers inquired, because I wanted a caffeine detox or a switch to tea. Instead, my insurance company was threatening to cut my aide services. I was trying to reduce my drinking to a minimum, preparing myself for the fact that soon I might not have someone to help me to the bathroom when I needed it.”

This is a student who graduated as valedictorian from her high school and who is at one of the country’s top universities — and she’s worrying about whether someone will be there to help her pee. Think about what that says about us as a society.

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In January, Landre had to appear before a judge and explain to her why she needed to keep her aides’ services.

“It was quite honestly the most humiliating experience of my life,” she says. A lawyer who was not a medical professional, she recalls, stood before the judge who also had no medical expertise and asked her personal questions such as, “How do you go to the bathroom?” and “Do your aides go to parties with you?”

She told them the truth. Her aides have to lift her onto the toilet. And no, they don’t go to social events with her because she thankfully doesn’t need them to help her hold a cup or use a fork.

Landre says that most people have no idea what disabled students like her across the country have to go through just to stay in college.

Forget “pee math,” as she calls timing her water intake to when an aide can get to her, and the inability to stay up all night because it might affect her health. She says there are systemic barriers they face.

Like many of her peers, she got an internship last summer.

Unlike them, she faced the possibility that the $14 an hour would cause her to lose her aide services.

An exception was made after a newspaper in her hometown wrote about her dilemma, but she says the experience left her worrying about this summer and what will happen when she graduates. After the article ran, she heard from people across the country who told her how they hadn’t been able to work because they knew that their income, even if it was less than a living wage, would cause them to lose their services. One man, she says, had graduated from Harvard University.

“The assumption is, if you’re disabled, you’re not going to work, and if you’re working, you’re not disabled,” Landre says.

That’s an “antiquated” way of thinking, she says — and she is trying to change that and so much more.

In one of her pieces for the Hoya, she hits on that word “overcoming.”

From her description, it’s clear why seeing it attached to that ad made her eyes roll.

“In praising achievement as ‘overcoming’ disability, we are only teaching that disability is incompatible with success,” she writes. “Only when we learn to view disability as a normal part of human diversity will these harmful practices and inequalities cease. We cannot pretend to pursue a just and equal society if we continue to leave the largest minority behind.”

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