Arlington Citizen-Journal

Foundation funds scholarships for UT Arlington students with spinal cord injuries

When Morgan Wood came to UT Arlington last year as the founding member of the Lady Movin’ Mavs wheelchair basketball team, her ambitions were much loftier than her finances.

She managed to pay her first-semester tuition while a state disability program paid for her apartment on campus and a partial basketball scholarship from the University of Texas at Arlington gave her $900 a semester for food. But that wouldn’t be enough to stay in school.

“I probably would have had to take out a student loan,” said the 21-year-old Tennessee native, who was born with spina bifida and is working on a double major in psychology and kinesiology.

But now she can focus her entire attention on her studies and basketball, thanks to a national scholarship program that helps students with spinal injuries or birth defects find independence by finishing college degrees that prepare them for good jobs.

Wood is among four UT Arlington students who were awarded the first round of scholarships by the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation after the nonprofit partnered with the university’s office for students with disabilities last spring.

The foundation, which also recently awarded scholarships at seven other institutions across the nation, committed $131,000 to cover the four UT Arlington students’ tuition, fees, books and supplies for the rest of their undergraduate or graduate degree programs, starting with the 2014-15 school year.

It also established a $75,000 supplemental fund that can be used to reduce specific barriers that affect Neilsen scholars on campus, provide disability assistance such as caregiver services and adaptive equipment, as well as help with child care, housing and transportation costs.

Working for independence

Penny Acrey, director of the office for students with disabilities, said the scholarship program targets one of the key problems keeping disabled people from living fully independent lives.

“If you have physical limitations, you’re going to be limited in your choice of careers,” Acrey said. “So education is very important for them to be able to make a living.”

Doug Garner, coach of the university’s Movin’ Mavs wheelchair basketball program, said less than 30 percent of students with disabilities get a college degree.

“Sixty percent live at or below the poverty level,” he said. “It’s about getting that degree and becoming independent so you can depend on yourself and not a government check every month.”

Wood’s able-bodied mother, who has worked hard for the multiple paychecks that provided for Wood and her older brother, inspired her to take on the challenge of college from her inconvenient wheelchair. In fact, Wood wrote about that inspiration for the essay part on the Neilsen scholarship.

“My mother had to work hard from when she was young,” said Wood. “She went to college while she was raising me and my older brother. I thought, ‘If my mom can do that, then I can easily get through school with two majors.’ ”

So after attending a couple of high school wheelchair basketball camps hosted by UT Arlington, she was impressed with the superaccessible campus and with Garner.

“We thought she’d be a great player to build a team around,” Garner said. “So we started the program last year with her in mind to build it around.”

The goal is to reach some of the stellar success of 38-year-old men’s wheelchair basketball program, which included back-to-back-to-back national championships in the early 1990s.

Excelling in accessibility

Acrey said the Neilsen scholarship is the only one offered at UT Arlington specifically for students with spinal impairment. The Allan Saxe Disabled Student Award, a $500 scholarship presented to a high-achieving student each spring and fall, is available to those with any physical or mental impairment, including depression, anxiety and dyslexia.

Garner said 19 students applied in the first round. The winners, in addition to Wood, are freshmen Andrew Bush of St. Louis, an engineering major; and Bridget Wise of Philadelphia, an education major. John Watson of El Paso is finishing his master’s degree in communications.

Although the foundation wasn’t sure it would get enough applicants, Garner said, “they were very pleased with the number they received. Because we recruit disabled students, it was easy for us to get that many applications.”

The deadline to apply for the second round of scholarships, which will fund costs of the 2015-16 academic year, is March 1, the same as most of the university’s other scholarship programs, Garner said. For more about the scholarship, contact Garner at 817-272-3410 or dgarner@uta.edu.

Acrey and Garner said that what caught the Neilsen Foundation’s attention was UT Arlington’s reputation for crafting a thoroughly accessible campus and programs that help students with disabilities feel included, particularly the Movin’ Mavs adaptive sports programs.

“Also, in the fall of 2013, we rolled out our disabilities studies minor on campus,” Acrey said, adding that the accessibility coverage and disabilities program “have brought a lot of attention to the campus, as far as disability as a layer of diversity.”

“The campus does a lot of things that go beyond the law in creating access,” she added.

It’s difficult to know how many students with disabilities attend UT Arlington, she said. The count keeper is Acrey’s office, which encourages those students to register so they can learn about all types of assistance available to them.

“I wish we could quantify it,” she said. She retrieved some figures, related just to her office, that show the numbers of registered students increased from 350 students to almost 1,000 students over the past 10 years.

But she knows there are many more out there. Garner estimates that an additional 300 students aren’t registered with the office.

“When we go out on campus, we see many people with all types of physical disabilities — using wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and some have prosthetic limbs,” Acrey said. “But they’re able to get in and out of classrooms and parking lots and through doorways, and they don’t need to ask for our assistance. And that tells us we must be doing something right.”

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