Sheri Melander-Smith decided to give up her modeling career and focus on her studies at UCLA after being diagnosed with a medical condition that could render her unable to walk.
Melander-Smith, who graduated in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, now works as a motivational speaker, sharing her personal story with audiences across the country to encourage them to better engage with individuals with disabilities.
Melander-Smith, who is Ms. Wheelchair America 2018, visited UCLA on Thursday to talk about her experiences living with a chronic disability. She encouraged students to be optimistic in any situation and engage in more dialogue with individuals with disabilities.
Ms. Wheelchair America is a nonprofit organization that recognizes women who use a wheelchair for mobility for their efforts to advocate for people with disabilities.
Melander-Smith was born with a medical condition that made her legs differ in length by three-and-a-half inches. After undergoing surgery, she was able to pursue opportunities in commercial advertisements and acting positions in her local community in Minnesota. She later worked with renowned modeling agent Eileen Ford in New York and started traveling the world for work.
However, in 1990, she was rushed to the hospital with a spinal cord aneurysm, and doctors told her she might never be able to walk again.
At the event, which was organized by the Center for Accessible Education, Melander-Smith said she originally found it difficult to adapt to her circumstances, but she remained optimistic because of her supportive upbringing.
“My parents were poor, but they had heart. They taught (me and my siblings) that if you worked hard enough and believed in yourself, you could accomplish your dreams,” Melander-Smith said. “That really instilled in me a sense of self that I think may sometimes be differing to people that have everything given to them in life.”
She added UCLA students are in a position to become active participants to improve inclusivity for individuals with disabilities because college students have historically led change surrounding social issues.
“Some of the largest civil rights movements have been created and maintained by students,” she said. “When you get into a large university like this and you haven’t started working yet, the … majority of your day is spent learning about different cultures and how you can live a life with diverse concepts of (equal) opportunity for all people.”
Melander-Smith said when people engage with individuals with disabilities, they should be aware of basic disability etiquette, such as respecting individuals’ personal space.
“My wheelchair is considered my personal space,” Melander-Smith said. “So don’t grab it, hold onto it, lean on it or ask me to carry things for you.”
Melander-Smith said individuals with disabilities should be treated equally and not assumed to be incapable.
“To treat people equally does not mean you treat them exactly the same,” she said. “If you’re talking about making adjustments so that they have full inclusion, (this) is not an issue of ‘Oh, I’m doing this to help this person,’ but to look at it as a natural part of everyday living.”
Several individuals who attended the event said they were able to relate to Melander-Smith’s experiences.
Christina Ortiz, a fourth-year psychobiology student, said Melander-Smith’s talk resonated with her because Ortiz is hard of hearing.
“(It) was pretty inspiring to hear her story, how she has pursued her career goals and how she has taken these situations to achieve them,” Ortiz said.
Megan van der Toorn, assistant director of UCLA’s LGBT Campus Resource Center, said she thinks the event highlighted the need for more accessible facilities for people with disabilities.
She said UCLA has made accommodations for individuals with disabilities, such as the CAE’s van service, which provides rides for students with permanent or temporary mobility-related disabilities.
Melander-Smith said she thinks everyone has the ability to live their life to the fullest and she plans to continue educating the public on the needs of individuals with disabilities.
“I encourage people to live their very best life possible … and to dream super big and to never give up,” she said. “Miracles can happen. I am perfect living proof of that.”