Meet Drew Dees, the student journalist using his platform to advocate for people with disabilities

To honor the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), In The Know is asking young people with disabilities about growing up with the law, and how it’s impacted their lives.

Drew Dees has never thought of himself as “the boy confined to a chair.”

There are plenty of other ways that Dees, who’s heading into his senior year at the University of Florida, describes himself to others. He’s a journalism student. He’s a reporter for WUFT News, North Central Florida’s public broadcasting station. He’s from a small town, one with a single stoplight where “if you blink you’ll miss it.”

The fact that Dees has cerebral palsy, and has been in a wheelchair for essentially his entire life, is just one part of who he is. That said, it’s still a major part — and it’s the reason he decided to study journalism in the first place.

“My number one passion is to advocate for people with disabilities, such as myself,” he told In The Know. “And I really hope [that] while informing my community on the issues and things that I think they should know about and I think that matter in the world, [I can] to use my platform to show other people with disabilities that, ‘Hey! You can do it, and I can do it too.'”

That mission hasn’t been without setbacks. Dees told In The Know that, despite his supportive upbringing and success as a student, he still faces discrimination throughout his daily life.

It’s one of the reasons he says that even though Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) has certainly made America more accessible, it hasn’t changed enough for people like him.

“Have we come a long way? Absolutely. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. It’s time for it to be updated,” he told In The Know.

Dees sees those issues all the time, including in his career. He described one particularly difficult period, last summer, during which he struggled to find a news station that would give him an internship.

Ultimately, he managed to find one — at WESH-TV in Orlando — and things turned around. Victories like these, Dees says, help him stay positive even when things appear difficult.

“That one ‘yes’ is what gave me the strength to move on,” Dees told In The Know. “I kept hearing those voices from my parents and support system saying, ‘Yes. Yes you can and yes you will.'”

Another big win came during Dees’ first semester of junior year, when he was granted a $50,000 standing wheelchair. The device, given to him by his insurance company, allowed him to stand at eye level when filming segments for the university’s student-run news channel.

“[Getting the chair] was an amazing experience. It was one that I will forever be grateful for,” he said. “I [used to] go to interview people and they would crouch down to me. And I would have to say, ‘No, the camera is there, I am right here. Don’t crouch down to me, talk to me like I’m a human being.'”

Dees says the chair “changed his life” in several ways, especially when it came to his career. Still, that doesn’t change the accessibility issues he and other millions of people — 13.7 percent of all Americans suffer from a mobility affecting disability, according to the CDC — deal with every day.

As a journalist, a public speaker and someone on social media, Dees has been outspoken about these issues for years. He’s particularly vocal about “universal design,” a prominent accessibility concept centered around creating environments that can be used, accessed and understood by the largest number of people possible.

“I want people to know that if we need accommodations — like ramps or anything — they shouldn’t see that as a hindrance. They should see it as a benefit to their company [or] their building,” he told In The Know. “Yes, they help people with disabilities, but they aren’t just for people with disabilities. They’re gonna help your grandmother in a wheelchair; they’re gonna help that person on crutches.”

Dees is set to graduate next year, but he’s not saving his fight until then. The 25-year-old told In The Know that he wants to be a trailblazer, and set an example for other people with disabilities.

“Let people with disabilities not be considered a burden to society,” Dees told In The Know. I think we’re great people. I think we add flavor to society. Think about ice cream. You have plain old vanilla and plain old chocolate, but then you add some Butterfingers, some caramel syrup, then you have the cherry on top — and you’ve got a great combination.”

“I like to look at ourselves as just the cherry on top to society,” he added. “The people who will be the world changers and difference makers.”

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s interview with Chella Man, the deaf, transgender model advocating for people with disabilities.

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