How to achieve success with a disability: My interview with Matthew Wangeman

A couple weekends ago I went to The Buddy Walk in Seattle, and I got the chance to talk with many parents and children about their concerns for the future. If we met there, welcome to Disabled and Successful! I’m glad you’re here!

One thing that stood out to me was that most parents and children already know what they want for the future, they just don’t know how to get there. After the walk I talked with my mom on the phone and she said something similar. She also told me she would love to hear more from Matthew, a professor I had at NAU, about how he’s become successful.

An image of Matthew's face. He is turned slightly to the side and you can see a handle of his wheelchair in the background.

I happened to interview Matthew right before I changed the format of this blog, and I only ended up posting a few quotes when his short documentary was released. If you would like to watch his documentary and read that post, you can do so here. Taking the 5 minutes to watch this documentary will change your perspective on disability and parenthood!

So I dug up Matthew’s interview and contacted him to ask for more insight. Here is Matthew in his own words about the wonderful professor, father, and disability advocate he is today. As well as his advice for parents!

Matthew’s (not-so-short) Bio

I am very lucky to be where I am today. I was born and there were issues during my birth.  My doctor didn’t catch that my heartbeat was slow, so I couldn’t breathe, and I was in the hospital for 6 weeks, and at 18 months they diagnosed me with Cerebral Palsy. My dad was a test pilot; he died when I was 2. So my mom was home with 2 kids, one with a disability, so she decided to send me to residential school, one for crippled kids, and I stayed there for 14 years. And the school is still open, so I could still be there if I didn’t get out when I did… So I spent 14 years there and I got my high school diploma.
And as you know, Berkeley had a program for people with significant disabilities, and so I applied and somehow got it in [laughter]. My mom had me look at group homes just in case Berkeley didn’t work out. So I lived in Berkeley for 16 years, and got 2 degrees. I was in a PHD program for public health, but at that point I was just done with school. And I went to the street fair, and Tanya was there, and somehow we met, and somehow we got together. And I learned from people with disabilities during my time at Berkeley that it was up to me to change the world for people with disabilities. So when I was in Berkeley I was on the commission on disability for the city of Berkeley for 8 years, and there is where I discovered who I was as an advocate for disability.
Tanya and I moved to Phoenix because my brother lived there, so I got on the Council for Developmental Disability in Phoenix. It was a statewide council, and boy did I cause problems! In 2006 the state passed a new minimum wage law and the people who wrote it were very smart because they said people with disabilities should make minimum wage. The people who run sheltered workshops for people with disabilities didn’t like the new law. So they tried to change the law to not pay people with disabilities minimum wage. And they thought the council would just back them up. That didn’t happen. And people said I was the reason.
When I was on the council, Rich Carroll, who was the director of IHD (Institute for Human Development), he was on the council with me, and one day he asked me if he writes this grant and if it gets funding, if I would want to work for IHD, so I said yes. The grant lasted for 4 years. It wasn’t very exciting and I was very bored, but I was also on the board for IHD. They were developing a 5 year plan for IHD, so I said why not develop a disability studies minor? I didn’t think people were listening, but they were. So Kathy was hired to develop the minor…but she really didn’t know what to do! [laughter] So she asked me to help her develop the program. I didn’t really think I would teach, and at first Kathy only asked me if I’d come in for about 5 classes, but I said “No, I am teaching it with you.” She was kind of shocked that I said that, but now she would not think of teaching it without me.
I forgot to talk about Elijah. I was very scared to have a kid, and I wondered what they would think about having a dad with a disability. And some people said it was a crime that Tanya and I would have a kid. Elijah’s a great kid and we made that movie, "My Dad Matthew.” It has won 4 awards and I think it makes people think about disability differently…I love my son. He’s 16, and they live in Tucson, and he’s not good at texting me back.

Interview Questions:

When I interviewed Matthew, I asked him a few specific questions that I thought would be very helpful for parents, and here are his answers:

What advice would you give to parents of kids with disabilities?

“Just to believe that anything is possible… You are only limited by what you think you can do.”

What do you think other people with disabilities would need in order to become as successful as you are?

“Never take ‘no’ for an answer. My dad taught me that…Because people with significant disabilities are living in a world that’s not made for them.”

Were there any people who had a big influence on you becoming successful?

“My stepdad. He told my mom to let me try to go to Berkeley… He was a very great dad to me. It was weird because he was not my real dad, but he treated me like his son. He just knew I could make it.”

What do you think are the factors that really helped you become as successful as you are?

“I think I have a great sense of humor. People like being around me and I think most people think that people with significant disabilities do not have personalities… I think disability is just part of the human experience, and people don’t need to fix disabilities.”

Final Thoughts

I emailed Matthew this week and asked him to give me a little more info and insight for you all. Here’s what he sent me:

I think one of greatest assets I have is my belief in myself and my pure desire to succeed. I have been very fortunate in my life because at very pivotal times in my life things just opened up for me. I have received so much help from various people along the way and I have taken advantage of those opportunities. For example Berkeley having that program for students with significant disabilities completely changed my life. My City Planning Professor advocating for me to get into graduate school when at first they said no.  
Life is about taking advantage of the opportunities that come your way and having the opportunity to take risks in your life is very important to people with significant disabilities.  Yes, they may fail but then again they may succeed and parents have to give opportunities for their children with even significant disabilities to succeed in life.  

I want to know, what insight did you gain from this interview today? Let me know in the comments!

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