Matthew Wangeman, a disability advocate and the focus of an award winning short film, answered questions at Utah State University on Friday after showing a documentary short film about his life and his son titled, “My Dad Matthew.”
Wangeman was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18-months-old. CP is a neurological disorder caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain and usually occurs while a child’s brain is developing around the time of birth. CP can affect the individual’s motor skills, body movement and speaking abilities.
“This is a great opportunity for everyone to meet Matthew (Wangeman),” said Matthew Wappett, executive director of the Center for Persons with Disabilities. “It’s a short film, only six minutes long, although with his great personality, he could fill up a two-hour film.”
The short film, directed by John Schaffer, is told from the perspective of Elijah, Wangeman’s son. Wangeman said that when the director came to him with the idea of making a documentary, it didn’t have a title, but he said Elijah stole the show.
“When I was seven, I asked when I was going to get my chair because I thought all adults got a wheelchair,” Elijah said in the film.
Wangeman graduated from Berkley with several degrees and is a university instructor in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“I think it’s attitudes that really disable people,” Wangeman said.
Wangeman uses a board with the alphabet and common words on it and his personal assistant, Kelly Hurlbut, recites what he wants to say. Hurlbut has lived with Wangeman for years and moved in after Elijah and Elijah’s mother moved to Toussaint.
“Do you think a six-minute film can change how people think about disability?” Wangeman asked the audience at the Sorenson Legacy Foundation Center for Clinical Excellence on Friday.
“I have had people ask me why I didn’t put in the hard parts of my life,” Wangeman said of the documentary.
“First off, it is just six minutes,” he said and laughed. “And to me, my life is not hard, it’s just who I am.”
Wangeman said that being able to go to Berkley, having a family and becoming a teacher are blessings in his life.
“I am just like everybody else,” Wangeman said.
Berkley had a program for people with significant disabilities, so when Wangeman went to Berkley there was one individual to help him at every hour of the day. However, Wangeman said that program has been cut.
“It all comes down to money,” Wangeman said.
He met his best friend at Berkley, and his friend wrote his dissertation about disability and sex.
“Because we would talk about girls,” Wangeman said. “We were in college. What would you expect?”
Wangeman met Elijah’s mother at a street fair in Berkley.
“I must have kept looking over because at the end of the night she came over to say hi to me and we became great friends and one evening she kissed me,” Wangeman said. “I was like, ‘Well that’s interesting.’” He laughed.
Wangeman said that in this film it was important to him to just show his life and nothing more.
“We did not want to make it inspiring. We just wanted to show my life,” Wangeman said. “I think most people think that disability is this bad thing. But it’s not; it’s just who we are.”
Wangeman said that because Elijah grew up with a dad with a significant disability, he thinks about the world differently.
“People with significant disabilities should have the same opportunities as others, but unfortunately they do not. And it is up to us to change that,” Wangeman said. “People are different and we should celebrate our differences.”
Wangeman said he makes $13,000 a year as a teacher and that people with disabilities often face additional barriers to homeownership, so his house is in his brother’s name.
“People with significant disabilities don’t have many friends and we don’t create a social network for them, so they feel very alone,” Wangeman said. “Especially after high school. I think we need to start over. Special Education should not exist.”
Wangeman said that diversity is celebrated, and disability should be part of diversity. But that “in this society, where capitalism rules, if you don’t make money, you are not valued.”
In Wangeman’s class there are 45 students. He has them have conversations with him and read his board to familiarize with communicating with someone with a significant disability.
“They really think differently about disability after that,” Wangeman said.
Disability is still very much unknown and underrepresented, and Wangeman intends to change that through teaching, speaking at conferences and making short films.