The Daily Gamecock

Ms. Wheelchair SC Julia Rodes shares story

Disabled USC student to speak on campus today

Third-year biology student Julia Rodes has gotten pretty far in life for 21.

The transfer student from Smith College has been happily married for two years to Army 1st Lt. Jared Rodes while continuing to work toward her dream of entering medical school for neurology, and after winning the title of Ms. Wheelchair South Carolina in August, she plans on chasing the national crown in the Ms. Wheelchair America 2012 pageant.

Few would guess upon meeting Rodes that just five months ago, this peppy, ambitious student lay unconscious in the intensive care unit with two severe brain injuries and lower spinal damage from an accident during a motorcycle safety lesson. Rodes lost some of her memory as well as her ability to walk.

“Even after five months, I’m still in this stage where I wake up in the morning and try to swing my legs over the bed, but then I remember I can’t,” Rodes said light-heartedly.

Rodes will be sharing her story of recovery and self-empowerment tonight at 6:30 in Russell House 205 as part of USC’s celebration of Disability Awareness month. The event is sponsored by USC’s chapter of Delta Alpha Pi, an international honor society for students with disabilities, and supported by the Office of Student Disability Services.

Rodes says her goal is to change the perception that students with disabilities have limited opportunities through social awareness and a positive image, one that participating in the Ms. Wheelchair pageant helped her to find.

“One of the things I’m trying to emphasize (as Ms. Wheelchair South Carolina) is that the only thing you’ve lost is your ability to get around the way you did before,” Rodes said. “I didn’t lose my ability to smile ... or my ability to have dreams. It just takes a different strategy. A lot of people forget that.”

Rodes will spend the remainder of the year traveling the state speaking to peer support groups and schools, educating others on how to approach those with disabilities as well as accident prevention. Ironically, she is sponsored by Thunder-Tower Harley Davidson of Columbia, the site of her accident. She attests that, despite her ordeal, she still can’t help her love of motorcycles.

“I asked them to sponsor me — I wanted to show people that you can have an accident and still move on,” Rodes said.

According to Disability Resource Coordinator Omar Troutman, 702 students at USC are currently registered as having a disability, whether physical, learning, psychiatric or audiovisual. However, since national statistics have found that between 10 and 12 percent of students in higher education have a diagnosable disability, Troutman estimates that the number should be closer to 3,000. Troutman attributes the lower registration to the stigma developed in early and secondary education and the misconception of disability services in college.

Second-year hospitality student Cindy Amick, president of Delta Alpha Pi, hopes that Rodes’ story will clear up misconceptions and encourage others to consider the day-to-day challenges faced by disabled students — from getting in and out of elevators in a wheelchair, to campus safety, to taking notes in class with dyslexia. Amick, who herself was confined to a wheelchair after being diagnosed with a crippling pain syndrome, hopes those with disabilities will find encouragement from Rodes’ experiences.

“We all have those days when we feel sorry for ourselves, but there’s no reason to stay there,” Amick said. “I think she can inspire some of us who are disabled to strive to do more and be active.”