Disabled student fights for visibility at UNC

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At her graduation ceremony next year, Katie Savage will stand in Kenan Stadium — where, at age 14, she started rebuilding her life.

In ninth grade, Savage walked into UNC Hospitals for heart surgery. She left in a wheelchair — without her left leg.

Complications from her heart surgery caused a blood clot in Savage’s leg, and gangrene forced the doctors to amputate quickly to save her life.

Savage only remembers waking up to find she was missing a limb that had been there when she lost consciousness.

“Now, after all these years, I’m back at UNC,” Savage said in an interview. “It’s almost as if things are coming full circle for me.”

Like any amputee, when Savage lost her limb, she lost a physical part of herself as well as an integral part of her identity.

“It shatters your self-esteem and makes you question who you are,” she said. “I had to learn how to do everything again. I literally started life over like a baby.”

Now, Savage is thriving at UNC, most notably as the founder and president of Advocates for Carolina, UNC’s first club for students with disabilities.

When she first inquired about creating such a club in fall 2012, administrators told her disability students didn’t want to be identified publicly.

The stigma makes it a lot like coming out as gay, Savage said.

But after meeting and being inspired by the confidence of two other disabled students at UNC, Savage decided UNC needed a club to bring students with disabilities — and their allies — together.

Carolyn Chesson, one of the club’s original members, said the club fills an otherwise unmet need at UNC.

“(Savage) was surprised how underrepresented students with disabilities were in such a large campus,” said Chesson, who uses a wheelchair. “I agreed with her that there was definitely a need for it.”

Director of Accessibility Resources Tiffany Bailey said increasing visibility for disabled students is the number one thing UNC can do to make the school more welcoming and accessible.

“It’s just a matter of education and increasing awareness,” Bailey said. “I look at diversity very, very broadly.”

Savage said the club shows disability students that they are not alone.

“You’re trying to get people to see the magnitude of this issue,” she said.

“We can definitely do a better job of supporting students who just want to be students.”

Savage said one of the biggest annoyances she has faced as a disabled student is something she never would have expected: parking tickets.

She said she recently was ticketed for parking in a handicap space even though she has a handicap license plate. She said she was confused and angry about the incident because it seemed unfair.

In order to understand and prevent occurrences like that, Savage remains a devoted campus activist for students with disabilities. She regularly sends emails to and meets with top-tier administrators regarding concerns about resources and support.

“I’ve always felt like if I had been able to see more people who looked like me when I was younger, I would have been able to have felt better about myself a lot sooner,” Savage said.

“I know I’m supposed to use my life to help others so they don’t have to go through what I did.”

Savage will graduate with a degree in political science, hoping to eventually work as a disability rights attorney — and she said she knows UNC is the right place for her to pursue her goals.

She said the climate around disability is changing and that the University has been responsive to her efforts. Savage said she is especially excited about the Department of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs’s recent move to create a diversity training that will include disability awareness and education.

“In so many ways I feel like I’m getting back what I lost so many years ago,” she said.

“This is the place where it all began. When I graduate and get to go back to that stadium, it’ll be full circle.”

university@dailytarheel.com

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