Iowa student turns disability into accessibility for others

By  | 

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) -- Michael Penniman always rises to a challenge. Just look at his Facebook profile, it's full of photos showing him climbing walls, rocks, and trees.

Penniman is a full-time student at the University of Iowa. From day one, he's been finding things the school can do to improve accessibility on campus.

"I have always enjoyed a challenge in life," said the 26-year-old Iowa City resident. "Tried to conquer every challenge that comes to me."

But, it was a bit over seven years ago, Penniman faced his biggest challenge to date, paralysis.

"Horseplaying around with my buddies," Penniman said. "One of my friends put me in a wrestling hold. My neck popped and that was that. Kind of a freak accident."

The incident left him a quadriplegic, with limited use of his body from the neck down. Penniman now relies on a powered wheelchair to get around and has specialized equipment to operate it.

But, as you'd expect from a challenge seeker, Penniman found a way forward and he hasn't stopped tackling new hurdles, either.

Penniman is a full-time student at the University of Iowa. From day one, he's been finding things the school can do to improve accessibility on campus.

"I lived at Burge. When I first got there, there wasn't even a handicapped button on the door to get into the room, or to get into the bathroom of the room."

Penniman's suggestions paid off. The university is listening and making changes. One Penniman was particularly proud of, larger door buttons for the handicapped which can be tapped by a wheelchair.

It doesn't stop there. Penniman is also a co-founder of a nonprofit called "Students Care." Its goal, help those with disabilities acclimate to campus life. The group provides in-home care services, scheduling assistance, tutoring and a lot more.

"Our ultimate goal is to facilitate the best student-to-student care that we can," Penniman said.

The group came up with the idea following Penniman's own experience. A buddy of his, Peter Easler, was helping Penniman adjust to college independence and the thought to create a nonprofit to benefit others the same way just made sense.

"As he struggled with some of his issues-- traditional home care and just issues going to college, our involvement started to step up," said Easler, a fellow student and co-founder of Students Care. "Before we ever thought about starting the nonprofit, it was just, 'Is this working pretty well for you?'"

The nonprofit is now working well enough that it has six clients, more than a dozen employees and is starting a second operation on Iowa State's campus.

"The goal is to see this go nation-wide," Penniman said. "I would like to see every college campus have the accessibility, the awareness, the advocacy to allow any student, whether they have a disability or not, to get a higher education."

That's become this challenge seeker's next goal. If history is any indication, success looks to be in Penniman's future.