On June 25, 1980, my life forever changed.

I became a member of an exclusive group of people who have suffered tetraplegia because of an unanticipated event.

The day was absolutely gorgeous, a beautifully calm and sunny day that soon became my defining moment in life. A split-second decision made during a diving accident caused my spinal cord injury.

At the time, knowing nothing about how to cope with such a tragic incident, I felt as if my life would irrevocably be changed for the worse.

I soon would realize that this obstacle would grant me an opportunity to not only reinvent myself as an individual but to also embrace a new beginning to the rest of my life.

One of the largest motivators for me was my mother, who never believed in the word “can’t,” within reason. When I would be faced with difficulties and negativity, my mother would always remind me of how lucky I was to be alive and to have such great support.

My first day of high school proved more difficult than I had ever imagined. When I arrived home feeling exceptionally sorry for myself and wanting to quit, I was reminded by my mother and brother that quitting was not an option.

Their push for autonomy fueled my desire to prove to the world that I was worthy of its recognition.

In the face of a severe injury such as mine, it is crucial for families to work together through obstacles and to remember that what you are feeling at the moment is only temporary.

While a freshman in high school, I had an amazing teacher, Mary Verschelde Mayer, who emulated the importance of being independent and never taking for granted the opportunities that exist right in front of you. Through her guidance, I realized that I am not defined by my disability, I am not just a tetraplegic.

She taught me about recognizing that my disability did not preclude me from reaching for the infinite possibilities the world has to offer.

I often felt as though I did not know where I belonged or how I fit in. Ms. Mayer opened my eyes on how to find my inner self rather than being categorized by my peers’ social constructs.

In a way, I think of my injury as a blessing. It has challenged me to exceed society’s expectations of what a disability represents and to impart strength and inspiration onto others. As a disability advocate, I well-know that the glass is never half-empty.

While hospitalized and continuing to grow greater awareness of my abilities, I refused to allow others’ perceptions of me to negatively affect my sense of self-concept and worth. I often was baffling to individuals who did not think that I would ultimately achieve my academic and professional goals.

Despite my disability, I graduated with not only a bachelor’s degree in education but went on to obtain my master’s degree, which ultimately prepared me for my present position.

As St. Xavier University’s director of disability services, I have firsthand knowledge of the importance this role plays in academia. As more students with disabilities pursue higher education, the demand for assistance in transitioning to a new and demanding academic setting is increasing.

It is imperative, now more than ever, to provide the tools, both physical and spiritual, that students need to successfully navigate their college careers. Contrary to popular belief, a disability is not defined by a wheelchair, a medical condition or atypical behavior.

Disabilities cannot always be seen with the naked eye, but that does not mean that they do not exist.

Margaret Rose McDonnell is director of the Learning Center and disability services at
St. Xavier University in Chicago.