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Student tires of being considered special

Jennifer Ayala receives her doctorate in philosophy.

Jennifer Ayala, 32, got her first wheelchair when she was 5 to help her maneuver up hills and across long distances. By the time she was 10, her spine was fused and she was in a wheelchair full time. But ask her about her disability, caused by severe muscular dystrophy, and she’ll tell you she doesn’t want to be considered special.

“I don’t like being called special or a hero,” she said. “I’m just trying to live like everyone else.”

Ayala, who received her doctorate last Saturday in philosophy, interpretation and culture, focused her educational goals on creating an awareness of how people with disabilities are marginalized in today’s society.

She hopes that there’s a day “when someone like me getting a Ph.D. is the same as everyone else.”

Always encouraged by her family, Ayala found that officials in her high school “didn’t see college in my future.” She spent part of her life wanting to hide, but overcame that and turned her life around. “I finally decided that this is the life that I have and that I had two choices: to give in to what society wants to make of me, or to be my own self.”

Ayala chose the latter.

She discovered through her work and educational experiences that there is little integration of disabled individuals into the mainstream.She wants to learn and teach about the politics and forces behind people with disabilities being marginalized, she said.

While working for an independence center, Ayala took her service dog into schools. It was then that she realized teaching was in her future.

After learning that a graduate degree would be necessary to teach at the level she wanted, she was challenged to go back to school to pursue graduate degrees.

“Ideally, I want to teach, to be a professor and to continue writing. I taught one course here (at Binghamton) and I loved it,” she said. “Binghamton has a progressive view of minorities and marginalization. I would hope to make disabilities studies an integrated part of the curriculum.”

Ayala, who used personal narrative to convey marginalization in earning her doctorate, has already designed some courses that include disabilities as part of their discussions.

“I want to bring forth awareness of disabilities,” she said. “People don’t understand and they fear to know what living with a disability is. I hope to bring awareness to everyone.”    

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Last Updated: 10/14/08