Writer: Tiffany Whisner, Coles Marketing Communications
“I want to be a Disney Princess.” Right away I knew Laura Medcalf and I were kindred spirits. Not only do we share a love for Disney but our favorite Disney Princess as well — Ariel. Like Ariel, Laura is strong-willed, independent and courageous. She has learned to do things her way and has never given up on what she wants in life.
“I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when I was four. It’s a form of muscular dystrophy,” Laura said. According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, it is a genetic disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. Laura could walk up until she was in about third or fourth grade, but she was completely wheelchair-bound by fifth grade.
“It’s a neuromuscular disease, so it will affect all of my muscles,” she said. It started with her legs, but over the years she has noticed a greater weakness in her upper body. Laura did go through physical therapy, but nothing offered her long-term benefits.
“I just try to do as much as I can independently. That’s my motto. I want to do as much as I can while I can.”
Making a positive impact
At 25 years old, Laura is the social media content specialist for the INDATA Project. Promoted from INDATA’s social media intern, Laura is responsible for blogging several times a week for the INDATA Project. She also develops content for and posts INDATA’s weekly Tech Tip, which requires shooting and editing video and interviewing people about assistive technology.
“I’m so excited to come to work every day,” Laura said. “It’s definitely been a positive influence in my life, and I’ve learned more about assistive technology than I could have ever imagined. I never thought I’d have such an intrinsically rewarding job.”
“I wasn’t certain about teaching originally,” she said. “But my senior year in high school, I had the most amazing English teacher, Mrs. Schoch, who inspired me in an infinite amount of ways. Because of her, I wanted to pursue a career in literature and grammar. I also realized how much teachers influence their students, and I wanted to influence others in that same positive way.”
So after graduating high school in 2007, Laura went on to study English and secondary education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. However, it wasn’t what she thought it was going to be.
“It was a lot to take on, and I was a bit overwhelmed,” she said. The typical college atmosphere is an adjustment in itself, but Laura didn’t let that stop her. She had been raised with the “tough love” that has helped her succeed.
Take one step at a time
“When I was younger, I was always told I was wise beyond my years,” Laura said. “My parents didn’t baby me because of my disability, and I’m so grateful for that.” One time when she was six or seven years old, she wanted to get up the stairs but didn’t think she could get there on her own.
“My parents said the only way I was going to learn was to do it by myself. They had all the faith in the world in me.” Laura was pleading for one of her parents to carry her, but no one came. She then made her way upstairs. “I remember having the biggest smile on my face and feeling so accomplished.” She has learned even though she can’t always do things like everyone else — she adapts and gets it done her own way.
Laura went through the mainstream school system with some special accommodations in classrooms and extra assistance. And even though she was in a wheelchair, she continued to put herself out there to new opportunities and experiences.
“I didn’t know anything else,” she said. “The wheelchair was a part of me but didn’t define me. People saw I was in a wheelchair but knew I wasn’t that different from them. Growing up, I was very active in Girl Scouts, show choir and even cheerleading — so I never struggled with making friends or going out there and doing things. A lot of people thought the wheelchair was the coolest thing.” But Laura is certainly aware of isolation and bullying that sometimes targets those with disabilities and strongly believes a lot of it is due to lack of disability awareness.
“I know many people encounter discrimination and bullying. I’m also aware that I’m luckier than a lot of people who have to go through it, and I know I’m very blessed.”
Laura also made lots of friends and gained many social experiences at MDA Summer Camp. It’s a place where kids with the neuromuscular disease can discover a world created specifically for them and meet other kids sharing the same needs.
“We did canoeing, dancing, arts and crafts, singing and theater,” she said. That helped developed her creative side and her love for writing and painting as well. In addition to the fun and friendship of MDA Camp, it also enables campers to grow in independence as they spend time away from home. It was a place where Laura and others could feel like physical disabilities are the norm rather than the exception.
“Being in a wheelchair most of my life, I have always been around people with disabilities, whether physical or cognitive,” Laura said. “Having attended MDA Summer Camp for many years, the people I met there had a major influence on my life.”
After her freshman year of college at Ball State, Laura had the opportunity to do a missions trip to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with MDA Camp Counselor Ali Campbell. While there, Laura was able to introduce individuals with disabilities to a lot of helpful resources. Her team also put on carnivals for schools, worked with children at orphanages and even put on a camp for individuals with cerebral palsy.
Learning a different lesson
Laura’s time at the camp allowed her to express herself through arts and crafts and through writing. It also exposed her to working with others with disabilities, which led her to continue to do so throughout high school.
Once Laura steered away from secondary education at Ball State, she began to pursue elementary education with a focus on special education. She was passionate about working with children, especially those with disabilities.
After four years, she was in the midst of her teaching practicum in preparation for student teaching. Then came another bump in the road.
“When it came time for me to be placed in a student teaching position, I was advised to pursue another career — for liability issues,” Laura said. Being in a wheelchair, she couldn’t lift the 50 pounds required of her. And although her professors were great supporters of Laura and her efforts, when it came down to the advisors and department chairs actually making a decision, it was one that didn’t go her way.
“When they looked at it on paper, being in a wheelchair made me not a good candidate to become a teacher.” The wheelchair hadn’t stopped her before, and it wasn’t going to stop her now. Not only had Laura succeeded in completing four years of college, but she did so living independently in the dorms.
“My family was really all for it,” she said. “They wanted me to live as much of an independent life as possible.” So maybe teaching as a full-time career wasn’t for Laura after all. But she continued on with and finished her teaching practicum. She also took advice from one of her Ball State professors in the special education department, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing.
“He said I had more to offer than a majority of his students,” Laura said. “I mean, I go through these challenges on a daily basis, and I think it’s important for individuals with disabilities to know they’re not alone, and they, too, can overcome such adversities. In addition to my physical disability, I also have ADHD. I deal with these issues every day, and I knew there was a way to accomplish my goals.”
The art of expression
Throughout college, Laura had continued to study English and language arts. She spent a fifth year at Ball State focused on writing. With classes in poetry and non-fiction writing, Laura was reminded of all she had accomplished.
“Writing really helped me find out who I am and how far I have come,” she said. “I had encountered many challenges in recent years that made me question my ability in so many ways. So many people had told me ‘You can’t do this, and you can’t do that.’ When I was writing these personal essays, it was an eye opener for me and helped me realize I can do anything!”
“Writing can make you very vulnerable, and I love that,” she said. “Words represent someone’s soul on paper, and when people expose their souls like that something magical happens.” It was an experience she would take with her in the future.
In 2012, Laura graduated from Ball State with a Bachelor of Science in general studies with a focus on creative writing and human development.
Through Indiana’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS), Laura was connected with Easter Seals Crossroads (ESC) and their Employment Division. With little work experience, Laura worked with a job coach at ESC for resume help and interviewing tips. She was then placed in her first job — working with Washington Township Schools in Indianapolis.
“I loved it. I really did,” she said. “As an after-school tutor, I got to work with students on a personal level. I helped them, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.” But in the end, the 40-minute commute wasn’t worth the few hours a week she was working. So she headed back to her job coach at ESC.
The job coach told Laura about an intern position open with the INDATA Project, helping to increase access to and awareness of assistive technology. She applied and was offered the intern position by INDATA Director Wade Wingler. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Now, as INDATA’s social media content specialist, Laura gets the unique opportunity to combine her love of helping people with her love of writing.
“I’m always trying to explore ways to maintain my independence,” she said. “Being in this atmosphere has exposed me to so many new devices and services. I’m seeing a lot of new technology firsthand, and I’m meeting people who are experts in this field. It’s really quite exciting!”
Laura is advocating for INDATA and all the resources it makes available for people with disabilities. Plus, she’s writing about many of the newest tools and gadgets.
“I love writing about technology,” she said. “One of the most memorable blog posts I have written was about Amy Purdy, a double amputee and Olympic snowboarded who was recently on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ With or without disabilities, we all need to see the possibilities that can be offered with assistive technology.”
Laura enjoys making her writing relatable to people, showing them how assistive technology has helped someone in real life, whether it’s going to college, driving or gaining employment.
“Assistive technology helps people with disabilities live a more independent life,” she said. “INDATA has so many resources and specialists to guide people throughout the state of Indiana with all different kinds of technology, no matter the disability.” Laura has also gained confidence in herself as well as respect for all the people who work at INDATA.
“This has been such a life-changing experience. I’m more aware now than ever of the necessity of everything we do at INDATA. There are so many people working so hard to make things possible. It’s an amazing and humbling experience to work with such passionate individuals who are helping others.”
Dreams can come true
Laura is an essential part of the INDATA team, and she makes helping others and making a positive impact her mission. But it’s not always easy.
She lives on her own, in her own house, with the help of caretakers. She also has another helper — her dog, Winnie, or Winifred Eleanor to be exact. She is a two-year-old American Bulldog.
“She’s my baby,” Laura said. “She’s very smart and inquisitive. She’s definitely helped me mentally and physically. She starts every single day off right and gives me a purpose.” Winnie gets Laura in the positive mindset she exudes as she heads to work at INDATA. Laura hopes to continue writing and even become a published author.
“I definitely have more stories to tell.” One of those personal stories is being kissed on the cheek by Jerry Lewis during his annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“I was a state goodwill ambassador for MDA for most of my childhood,” Laura said. “In 1997, my family and I went out to Los Angeles for the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon. My biggest memory was Jerry Lewis swooping me up at the end of the telethon and kissing me on the cheek. I remember blushing — it was on national television!”
After all, we both love The Little Mermaid. And her favorite quote comes from Mr. Walt Disney himself: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” And she will.