A Q&A with the Alliance for Disability Awareness

Laura Wiederholt, senior in biology, and Lauren Berglund, junior in child, adult and family services, relax in Wiederholt’s apartment.

Emily Blobaum

Laura Wiederholt and Lauren Berglund are just two of 2,000 students with documented disabilities on campus.

And they’re not ashamed of talking about them, either.

Wiederholt, senior in biology, re-launched the Alliance for Disability Awareness — a club dedicated to supporting students with disabilities and raising awareness about them — during her sophomore year and has been president since.

Berglund, junior in child, adult and family services, will take over as president next semester.

Wiederholt has dysautonomia, which is an umbrella term for a group of disorders that cause dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system, anxiety and depression.

Berglund has oculocutaneous albinism, which is a rare disorder that causes a reduction of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Berglund is blind and uses her guide dog, Sheba, to get around.

The Daily sat down with the two of them to reflect on their year of advocacy together.

How have you seen the Alliance for Disability Awareness grow? 

Wiederholt: Initially I mostly just kind of thought of it as a bunch of students can come and hang out, and it’s kind of turned more into advocacy. I’ve ended up doing a lot of work with the administration, way more than I ever thought I would. As I saw the complaints that were coming in, I was thinking, ‘a lot of these complaints are identical’ and maybe we can fix them.

How many people are in the club?

Berglund: I’d say an average of six people at a meeting.

Wiederholt: It’s somewhat disappointing, the lack of engagement. I think it’s a hard topic to talk about. …

Berglund: … And a lot of the disabilities themselves prevent people from attending. 

Wiederholt: If I wasn’t president, I guarantee you I would have missed some of the meetings. I’ve had to force myself to get up and be like it doesn’t matter if I hurt, it doesn’t matter if I just got done crying and look like a mess, I have to go. People’s disabilities prevent them from doing the things that are best for advocacy. And a big part of the reason why it hasn’t grown so much is that it’s not very appealing to the community as a whole. The Iowa State community as a whole, when they find out it’s an organization run by people with disabilities about disability awareness, it seems like they lose interest. 

Berglund: They want the Best Buddies, help the poor disabled kids kind of thing and that’s not us.

Wiederholt: Not to say you can’t be in the club if you don’t have a disability, in fact I’d encourage it, but we very rarely get members without disabilities. I wish that there was more community engagement. I think when we do show people, they get upset. We did the Step Into My World event [an event where students can experience what it’s like to have certain disabilities and have to maneuver with a cane or wheelchair] in the library and I took people around in a wheelchair and I was like, ‘OK, try to get in the bathroom,’ there was a guy that said ‘I can’t get into the bathroom’ and I said ‘That’s right, you have to go to a different building to go to the bathroom,’ and he’s like ‘Well that’s ridiculous.’

Berglund: You don’t think about things until you’re forced to and I just think that’s part of the benefit [of having events like Step Into My World] we can force people to think of the different things and then they keep those things in mind.

Berglund: Putting a fellow student’s face and name and story to the things that they’re told … You know people are disabled, you know people have disabilities, but you don’t really realize that they affect your peers until someone is like ‘hey, me too.’

Berglund: Sometimes as the club and when we all come together, we help students reach the point of accepting their disability and accepting the identity and what comes with it.

Wiederholt: The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as a person who has a personal or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. People will think, ‘I have anxiety and there are days where I can’t even eat because I just feel so sick to my stomach.’ That’s a major life activity. There’s a lot of stigma around having a psychiatric disability. There’s a reason that I talk more about my physical disabilities than my mental disabilities and it’s just because it still makes me uncomfortable.

Berglund: I’ve even noticed Laura, in the beginning you only said “I have dysautonomia.” The last three or four times we’ve spoken, I’ve heard you say, ‘I have dysautonomia and I have anxiety and depression.’

Wiederholt: Originally I kind of started it for selfish reasons, like I felt alone and I wanted a place where I could not feel alone, and now I just kind of realized if you have the ability to speak up for others and you can try to help improve things. I find it very fulfilling to do that and I think it’s the right thing to do because there’s plenty of people that just can’t. If I can help, I really want to help.

Berglund: I think for me growing up, I was taught how to advocate and so many people with disabilities, especially blind students, are not really taught that. You have to advocate for your needs or you’re not going to do well. I was the first student to graduate my district who had a visual impairment and no other disability and hopefully paved the way for people behind me. My hope is with my advocacy efforts, I can make it easier for the people that come behind me, but hopefully also teach others how to advocate for themselves because I think it’s one of the most important skills anyone can have, especially someone with a disability.

Wiederholt: One of our goals is to teach [people] that you don’t need to be ashamed of who you are and how you are. You’re not less of a person because you have a disability. It certainly causes challenges in your life and it makes things more difficult, but it’s the type of thing that you will find work arounds and you’re going to find a way to do everything.

Berglund: Not necessarily everything. I can’t drive a car. 

Wiederholt: I mean within reason. There are plenty of things that people are like ‘oh I can never do that.’ 

Berglund: There’s supports. There’s accommodations. I heard someone say ‘I’m never going to live alone.’ But maybe you live alone but someone comes into your house three hours a day and helps you with things that you can’t do.

Lauren, I know a big part of your advocacy is through educating people on social media and showing what your daily life is like.

Berglund: I feel like it’s a way to go about it where people can have their reaction without being worried that they’re going to offend anyone. If I can get one person to think differently about something, that’s a huge deal. I feel like I have to convince people to the level that I struggle. To them, I do fine. I get around, I get to class, I do my stuff. I think that sometimes it’s just trying to show people what we put in to get to where we are.

Wiederholt: They don’t realize the reality of how long it might take [someone] to the destination that somebody else got to in 30 seconds.

Do you feel like you’ve made any changes at Iowa State?

Berglund: I like to think that while I haven’t made [many] changes up higher, I would like to think if anything I’ve changed professor’s perceptions.

Wiederholt: I feel like there have been some things that I can’t really take direct credit for. Nora [Ryan]’s been hired, the University Committee on Disabilities has been reinstated, it seems like administrators have been more conscious of it, but I don’t feel like I can personally take any credit for that. At this point I’ve spoken in front of thousands of people, I like to think that 1 percent of those say ‘oh yeah, this is important.’ Or if that changes their attitudes on people with disabilities, that’s enough for me.

Are there any specific things that you’ve been proud of?

Wiederholt: When you feel like you’ve really reached somebody after you’ve spoken with a group, sometimes they’ll email you afterwards or come up to you afterwards saying, ‘hey, I just wanted to say thank you, I never thought of it that way before.’ That’s when I really feel like I’m making a difference. Or they’ll say, I realized anyone can have a disability. And that’s a point I really try to get across. Disability doesn’t discriminate and it can happen to you.

Berglund: And you can’t necessarily see the disability.

Wiederholt: Or a lot of people see a wheelchair and that just puts a huge stop sign up for any further interaction. I’d rather just have it be that a wheelchair is just part of what you’re observing, not the whole of what you’re observing. People are taught, don’t look at them, don’t engage, don’t talk to them, just ignore. And I like to teach people, don’t just ignore. And people with disabilities don’t just date people with disabilities. Or they don’t live their lives alone. I like to get the point across, like yeah, we can go on dates, we can do things.

What is it like being a student with a disability on Iowa State’s campus?

Berglund: At times, frustrating. Compared to other universities that I’ve been at and had experience with, Iowa State is above the ball in certain aspects, but also behind it in others. We’re behind when it comes to physical accessibility. But when it comes to you having an issue with a professor we have a whole team of people here who can help you.

Wiederholt: Some things, we’re doing pretty well on especially considering that we have a huge campus. I think in general education [is a big issue]. I think society as a whole falls behind on education. The more further removed you are from a person with a disability, the less you’re going to know.

Berglund: There’s still a ways to go with student knowledge and acceptance. 

Wiederholt: I’m always happy to answer questions. If you want to get to know somebody and they have a disability and you’re interested in being friends with them, don’t let it stop you.

What is it like to be you?

Wiederholt: Difficult.

Berglund: Complicated.

Wiederholt: Yeah it’s complicated.

Berglund: I feel like it’s almost like you’re on a roller coaster.

Wiederholt: Sometimes I just feel like I’m in a slingshot and somebody just pulled back and let go and I’m just kinda going. I feel like I’m just kind of in limbo a lot. Especially with the mental illness, it’s always uncertain. You just kind of don’t know what’s going to happen.

Berglund: I mean yeah it’s frustrating and shitty but there’s also times where you’re sitting with your friends and you’re all laughing about something that the outside people wouldn’t understand. There’s ups and there’s downs and there’s just going steady.

Describe your friendship.

Berglund: Our friendship isn’t that much different than anyone else’s.

Wiederholt: I’d say our personalities go together well. Like she’s easily amused and I really like amusing people.

Berglund: She likes my dumb jokes.

Wiederholt: We’re both really talkative. Lauren never shuts up. She’s really easy going about stuff. I feel like if anything, we’re more open. I kind of like that about having a disability, it forces you to be open. If you have people that understand you, your support system is a lot better because they can understand. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.