Lucia Rios shares her journey to becoming an accessibility advocate

The first time I came to Hope College, I was in fourth grade and had won a Young Authors Award. I wrote about my experience with bowling. 

It was really cool because the book was shaped like a bowling pin. It was my way to show and teach others about some of the differences in my life and what I had to do to take part in activities. 

This month, I gave the keynote talk at Hope College’s Disability Inclusion and Hispanic Heritage Lecture. My speech, titled “Coming Full Circle — It’s Been the Ride of My Life,” focused on the intersection of disability and race on compounding barriers to accessibility. I’m sharing some of the highlights from my presentation here, which you can watch here

A change in plans

Coming back to Hope College to tell my story is a full-circle moment for me. In my work, I share stories about my experiences with disabilities to help educate and advocate for disability inclusion. 

I was born and raised here in Holland, Michigan. When I was younger, I was determined to get out and experience the big wide world. 

My plans changed, however, after I graduated from Western Michigan University in 2002 with a B.A. in journalism and comparative religion. That’s when I moved back to Holland to begin my career as a writer and a disability advocate.

I worked for The Grand Rapids Press for a few years as a news aide, Disability Network Lakeshore for 15 years as an accessibility specialist and youth services coordinator and a resource navigator at The Source. Those experiences have prepared me for my dream job as a Workforce Navigators Program Associate in the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce. It’s a remote position that allows me to remain active in my community and travel the country promoting accessibility. 

Among my other responsibilities, I’m the community engagement editor at The Lakeshore West Michigan, as well as the co-editor of our yearlong Disability Inclusion series. 

Another part of my identity is my heritage. I'm a Mexican American. My mom was born in Indiana to immigrant parents from Mexico. My dad was born in Mexico. He came here when he was 6. Both sides of my family came to this country determined to give the next generation a better life. 

An encouraging mom

I was born with ​​spina bifida, which affects my ability to walk. I rely primarily on a wheelchair to be mobile. I’m the only one in my family with a physical disability, but my family didn't focus as much on my diagnosis. 

My mom had two daughters, my sisters, before I was born. And my brother after. She decided that she was going to raise me like my siblings. And that was actually the best thing in the world for her to do. 

I didn't really, truly understand what spina bifida was until later on in my life. My mom always told me I was special, and that I was picked just for her. I participated in as many activities that I could, and everyone was very accepting of me. 

I noticed my disability more when people started telling me that I was different or looked at me differently. 

My mom always encouraged us. I wanted to play tennis, so she bought me a tennis racquet and tennis balls. But, when I talked about going to college, that wasn't something Mom knew how to help me do. I am the first generation in my family to graduate from college. 

Desire to be self-sufficient

I knew education was something that would help me be independent. I always wanted to be self-sufficient. I didn't want to have to rely on other people to help me. I didn't like it when people assumed that I would always live with my mom. When I decided to go to college, my family really rooted for me. 

Writing has always been my thing. I wanted to be a journalist and work in a big city, so I studied journalism in college. It was my first time being away from home. 

Lucia Rios with the Hope College student organizers.

At home, everything had been taken care of. I didn't know how to cook or wash clothes. I was very pampered. My mom and I decided that Western was probably the best place for me because it was not too close to home (an hour away) but yet close enough “just in case.” 

I didn't really know some of the struggles a person with a disability encountered on a daily basis. So, when I went to Western, it was truly a reality check. 

I often felt like an anomaly because I didn’t always feel like I fit into one specific group. I didn't have friends with disabilities in high school. I was mainstreamed, and I had friends, but I just didn't fit in any particular group. 

Singled out

At college was the first time I experienced people looking at me and thinking I couldn't do something. 

The Western campus was older and not very accessible, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had passed in 1990. I couldn't attend my first college class because the elevator was broken. They had to move the class to the first level so I could attend.  

There were hills on campus, too, and I use a manual wheelchair. I'm proud to say that, toward the end, I could roll up any of those hills, even though I couldn’t go too fast because of the curb cuts and cracks in the sidewalk. Navigating the campus as a wheelchair user strengthened my resolve to improve conditions for myself and others in similar circumstances.

One of my professors wrote notes on my papers about my wheelchair. He singled me out. He told me I had three things going against me: I was a woman, a minority and “crippled.” And that was definitely a derogatory word; he didn't say it in a nice way. 

No one had treated me like that before. I would call my mom, crying.

Mom loves me fiercely and wanted me to come home. Fortunately, I met a friend who helped me find my voice. She encouraged me to file a complaint about the professor’s treatment of me. I found out that other people were also experiencing different forms of discrimination from him as well. That professor gave me a C. When I retook the class, I aced it. 

Finding my passion

On campus, I started using my assignments as a way to educate others. I did a research paper on the accessibility of Kalamazoo and got connected to a disability group. They shared their stories about their struggles pre-ADA, and what has improved since. When people would reach out and ask, “What can I do?” I could tell them who to contact. I joined student government and learned to speak up for myself and others. 

This experience opened up my world. I found my passion. 

The Grand Rapids Press wrote a story about me, which led to a call from Disability Network Lakeshore and eventually a job offer. The organization’s founder and executive director, Ruth Stegeman, took me under her wing and taught me about advocacy. 

I had so much to learn. She really taught me about advocacy and how you can work within a community to create change. That’s what brought me to where I am today: advocating and educating people about issues that affect people with disabilities. 

And I’ve been fortunate. I am able to do a lot with writing, as well. 

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.