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KU student in wheelchair adapts to university life with hope and humor

Ricky Hernandez, a Merriam resident with cerebral palsy, performed a comedy routine for fellow students during a talent show last month in the Student Union at the University of Kansas.
Ricky Hernandez, a Merriam resident with cerebral palsy, performed a comedy routine for fellow students during a talent show last month in the Student Union at the University of Kansas. Kansas City Star

Ricky Hernandez made his University of Kansas debut as a stand-up comedian recently — in his wheelchair.

It didn’t start well. At first he couldn’t find the dormitory buddy who’d been helping with his routine. Then Hernandez, who’d been diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, discovered that his cellphone had died. He couldn’t call his buddy to see where he was. And the student union recharging station didn’t have a cord that fit his phone.

The campus carillon chimed 7 p.m. Showtime. So what now?

“Plan B is my favorite,” said the first-semester freshman. “That’s hoping for the best.”

For Hernandez, who has been adapting to adversity for as long as he can remember, there’s always an alternative plan of action.

Sometimes Plan B turns out well. Years ago, Dream Factory volunteers built him a baseball field in the backyard of his parents’ Merriam home after Hernandez’s first request had been a horse and a llama. He was 7 years old then.

Now 19, the high school graduate has entered college with plans to earn a graduate degree in psychology. Since August, he has been one of almost 28,000 students on the Lawrence campus, doing his best to participate in mainstream collegiate life, including trying out a comedy routine during a recent open mic night.

Hernandez says he’s pleased at being able to attend classes at Kansas and have his own dormitory room, where he dresses and prepares meals with the help of paid assistants.

“All the time growing up I never spent the night at a friend’s house,” he said recently. “Now I’m on my own at college.”

That has been a trend on college campuses, where schools are devoting resources to helping students with disabilities.

Still, Hernandez’s collegiate life includes daily personal challenges that most of his fellow students never have to consider. Oversights, such as failing to maintain a sufficient charge on his cellphone or electric wheelchair, can throw an entire day’s schedule into peril.

As he cannot take notes in a classroom, the university pays student aides to serve as scribes. But inside a classroom, Hernandez must earn his grades in the same way his classmates do.

“Our mission here is to create access for Ricky,” said Jaclyn Anderson, assistant director of the university’s Academic Achievement and Access Center. “But we cannot alter the fundamental nature of a course.

“He has to do the exact same work as anyone else.”


The question: How to find the inverse of an exponential function analytically.

Ingrid Peterson, director of the Kansas Algebra Program, used an overhead projector to diagram that problem inside a classroom on a recent afternoon. The immediate response from the 20 students seated at desks: silence.

But one student, parked in his wheelchair against a side wall, nodded his head.

“Ricky?” Peterson said.

“We switch the roles,” he said.

Correct, Peterson said.

The moment summed up Hernandez’s lifelong approach to schoolwork. Besides forcing him to use a wheelchair, his cerebral palsy has limited his dexterity largely to one finger on each hand. But he has learned to compensate.

“Ricky is particularly capable of working through a lot of things in his head,” Peterson said. “He often is two or three steps ahead of me.”

His father, Ricardo, didn’t allow him access to a calculator until seventh grade, when math problems began growing more elaborate, Hernandez said.

“He knew that in order to keep up with everyone else, because I couldn’t write, I would have to do a lot inside my head,” he said.

He long has been skilled at that, said his mother, Gloria.

“He would walk us through each math assignment,” she said. “He would literally tell us, ‘OK, draw a line there.’”

During Hernandez’s years at Shawnee Mission North High School, teachers helped develop an education program for him.

College has been different. A disability specialist fills out accommodations request forms with students, who take them to class instructors. For Hernandez, who is carrying 16 hours in six courses, that meant filling out that many forms.

And although Hernandez had access to paraprofessionals in high school, there are no “paras” on the Lawrence campus.

Hernandez does have access to student aides. Although it’s not typical of many colleges to provide such aides, Anderson said, KU does pay students to assist colleagues like Hernandez. In Hernandez’s case the aide takes notes, retrieves notebooks from the backpack routinely strapped over the rear of his wheelchair or, during the recent algebra class, removes the cap from a small vial of energy drink and places it between the tops of Hernandez’s wrists, allowing Hernandez a quick jolt.

Hernandez also can access tutors through a federally funded program.

But then there is the challenge of navigating daily university life.

In their Merriam home, family members helped him shower and dress. But upon arriving in Lawrence, Hernandez had to hire fellow college students listed through a Kansas City area agency that coordinates in-home care. Through a state program, Hernandez pays four rotating personal care assistants to help him shower, arrange his books and laptop, and dress.

Hernandez maneuvers his six-wheel electric wheelchair across campus by moving a joystick positioned near his left hand.

Sometimes an elevator button requires a dexterity Hernandez can’t easily manage. But passing students often will help, said Alexa Mallow, an Olathe sophomore who serves as one of Hernandez’s assistants.

The only moments of awkwardness, she said, might be when students are not expecting Hernandez’s swift 180-degree wheelchair maneuver, which he uses to back into elevators and campus buses.

“But that’s just Ricky trying to make everything as easy as he can for everyone,” Mallow said.

One stubborn issue: Hernandez has been unable to find personal care assistants to fill weekend slots. So his father often takes him back to Merriam on Saturday mornings and brings him back to campus on Sunday nights. That doesn’t discourage him, his parents said.

“You can’t crush this kid,” said his mother. “He’s invincible.”


The backyard baseball field, built with artificial surface base paths, still stands. For about 10 years, disabled children affiliated with the Kansas City’s Miracle League came to his house for organized play.

During the Kauffman Stadium renovations of 2007 through 2009, Hernandez served as an Americans With Disabilities Act representative advising on the installation of wheelchair bays and other accommodations.

Today, Hernandez and the more than 800 students registered this semester with the university’s access center benefit from a spirit of inclusion that has developed on college campuses over many decades.

In 1960, the University of Missouri in Columbia received a federal grant designed to serve disabled students in seven Midwestern states, including Missouri and Kansas. The first disabled student to earn a degree at Missouri graduated in 1963.

In 1964, Ed Roberts, who had contracted polio as a teenager, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Berkeley. The university first had denied him admission because the iron lung he needed to sleep inside didn’t fit in his dorm room. But ultimately they found space for him in another building, and Roberts helped develop a campus program for physically disabled students.

Years later, federal mandates like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required any school receiving federal assistance to provide people with disabilities opportunities to be part of mainstream student life.

Right at showtime, Hernandez found his rehearsal partner, Connor Fries of Overland Park.

When a master of ceremonies called Hernandez’s name, he flipped his chair’s joystick and rolled toward the middle of the room.

“I never thought I would do a stand-up thing in my life, right?” he said to about 50 fellow students.

Silence.

“It’s OK for you guys to laugh,” Hernandez added.

Everybody did.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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