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  • Johileny Meran

​Rolling to Success

Updated: Mar 26

My disability has propelled me forward, so why does my family think it holds me back? 

I’ve spent the last few years of my life becoming a proud disabled woman. I have learned that all of the parts of my identity that make me who I am are my strength. But no matter how much I accomplish or how proud and confident I am as a disabled woman; my family still views my disability as an obstacle I have to overcome - a part of me that needs to be fixed.

My first memory of sitting in a wheelchair was also my first memory of being in an airport - of traveling to another country for surgery, and of accessing a lifetime of adventure: I was 8 years old; my mom and I were traveling to the U.S. for the first time. At the time, I used what I call a “Granny walker” and braces. I was told by airport staff that I had to sit in a wheelchair to get through security and to the plane. I remember tearing up and arguing that I could walk. I reluctantly sat in the wheelchair and took my first trip on wheels.

After my surgery did not wield the expected results, a wheelchair became my main mobility device. I lost my ability to walk using a walker, and I began re-learning how to do things, but this time on wheels. I used two different wheelchairs between elementary school and high school.

An Afro-Latina woman in sunglasses with long black hair smiling at the camera

In high school, I spent four years re-learning how to walk again using forearm crutches. I learned how to balance, navigate stairs, open doors, carry my book bag and a lunch tray, and lastly, I practiced how to walk up and across the stage to grab my diploma.

Why? Because for years, I had attended graduation ceremonies for other people, and I watched as wheelchair-using students like myself would have to accept their diplomas at the bottom of the stage stairs instead of getting to cross the stage like everybody else. After working that hard to graduate, I knew that I wanted to be able to cross the stage like everybody else, so that meant I needed to walk. On the day of my high school graduation, I walked onto the stage, gave my valedictorian speech, and accepted my diploma.

It was not until I was entering college that I got my first wheelchair, which gave me autonomy and the freedom to go on all the adventures I yearned for. It was a lightweight wheelchair with a SmartDrive power assist attachment. In college, I took the wheel to my own adventures. Studying on a city campus allowed me to learn so much. I remember the first time I took the subway by myself and showed up at my grandma’s door. A puzzled look on her face, she asked, “How did you get here?” “The subway,” I answered, “I downloaded an app to look for elevator access.”

I studied away from home, and I studied abroad. I attended NYU, a large university. I quickly learned that the best way to find community was to join student clubs. I found comfort in joining clubs that aligned with the identities I hold. I joined important social justice conversations. But I could not find a disability club. Soon I learned that it had been inactive for a couple of years and was in danger of being removed as a club. I joined as co-president to reactivate the club, and I leaned on the support of other identity-based clubs for support and guidance. Soon after that, I connected with students with disabilities and allies.

Fast forward to my college graduation years later. I spent time understanding the structure and process of graduation ceremonies at my college, and I advocated crossing the stage in my wheelchair. I remember someone asking me, “Why don’t you walk across the stage?” And I responded, “because I got through these four years of college navigating classes and a city campus on wheels, it’s only fitting I roll through my graduation.”

I also spent those four years of undergrad advocating for the rights and access of students with disabilities on campus, from making a list of automatic door buttons that were not in service during my first week as an undergrad and reporting every one of them to create an access culture guide to a study abroad site to encourage more students to participate in international exchange programs as a senior.

After my graduation ceremony, one of the first questions I got from a family member was, “So are you doing surgery soon to walk now that you are finished studying?” I remember brushing it off because I didn’t quite have an answer. I was only thinking about the fact that I had just achieved one of my biggest goals of graduating college, and that still somehow was not enough for my family.

I was confused as to why this question seemed to keep coming back to the surface every time I wheeled toward success in one way, shape, or form. Like the efforts I made, and the achievements I reached were never enough because I was still not walking.

My wheelchair has propelled me forward in ways I never thought possible. So why do those around me see it as something that is holding me back?

Johileny Meran is a young Afro-Latina with a disability and a Dominican immigrant. During her undergraduate studies, Johileny served as co-president of the NYU Disability Student Union. She believed that including disability in the diversity conversations on campus was crucial to improving accessibility on campus. One of her favorite things to do is travel, so far, she has visited six countries.

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