I first met Michael Leach at his commencement ceremony and was immediately struck by his confidence, positivity, and enthusiasm for learning. Since then, Michael’s been moving and shaking. Getting married in October, moving across the country, pursuing his Master's degree, looking for a publisher for his recently finished book, and volunteering at a local high school – all these activities have left Michael long on to-dos and short on free time. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with Michael to ask him about his experience as a person with a disability. In honor of National Disability Independence Day and all of our students with disabilities, we are honored to highlight Michael’s story.
Living with Ability
While receiving any diagnosis can be a traumatic experience, Michael’s personal diagnosis story was nothing short of harrowing. “When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. And when I was 13, I had a doctor tell me that eventually, I would be in a wheelchair and that there was nothing I could do about it.” What makes his story even more profound is the fact that the doctors were wrong. Michael repeatedly requested MRIs to confirm the diagnosis he’d received and was, again and again, denied the MRI.
“When I was 21 I wound up in a wheelchair, and it was devastating to me.” Michael used his wheelchair for seven years, all the while wondering if he was properly diagnosed. And then he had a breakthrough session. “Seven years later, I went to a neurologist who looked at me and said that I did not have cerebral palsy.” Tests confirmed that Michael had been misdiagnosed and that Michael was actually living with a mild form of Strumpell-Lorrain disease. His new doctor told him that, while he would walk again, and while surgery would help, the initial misdiagnosis meant that he would need to use a walker. When asked about what hearing that news feels like, Michael’s response is candid and powerful: “It takes a lot of strength to get through that.”
Michael continued to build on his sense of strength through his education. On the day we met, he was not only graduating, he was doing so with honors. Hearing about his induction into his first honor society marked a turning point for Michael, “When I got into Golden Key, it was an amazing feeling that brought me so much pride.“ He didn't stop there. Michael was also inducted into Alpha Sigma Lambda. “With a proper diagnosis, things had changed, and I had turned into someone who was self confident. And those honor societies really helped me along in feeling that self-worth.”
How You Deal
Since completing his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication, Michael has used his degree to pursue freelance work, including regularly contributing articles to a media blog. He has also used his writing skills to pen a memoir that he is currently looking to get published. His memoir tells his story of overcoming adversity and is a direct reflection of his kind-hearted nature. “My desire to write simply came out of a desire to spread knowledge that could possibly help other people.”
Michael is also pursuing his desire to spread knowledge by continuing his education. He is pursuing a Master of Arts in Education at the University of Arizona Global Campus and wants to use his knowledge, unique experience, and disability to positively impact other learners’ lives. “I think that in a younger grade, having a teacher with a disability will be beneficial because it will show students that just because somebody is different, doesn’t make them less.” Michael’s resiliency, determination, and dedication to helping others have not only had a positive impact on his education and his career path; it extends to his attitude and sense of emotional well-being. “There are certain things that anger me, and there are certain things that are upsetting, and rather than stay bitter and upset about it, I’m going to be the person that uses my degree . . . to help other people.”
When I asked how he manages to do so much in the face of diversity, I could hear Michael smile over the phone. “I’ve always lived with this notion that you’re never given too much to deal with. It’s just how you deal with it that changes everything.”
Written by: Samuel Harvey
Sam is a former Content Specialist for the Office of Student Access and Wellness at the University of Arizona Global Campus.