Joey Pagano poses for a portrait in front of the Hall of Languages on the Syracuse University campus. Pagano majors in journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and is from Fayetteville, NY.
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he idea of writing two five-page papers for separate courses in the same week began to erode my confidence. As I traveled the icy path from the Maxwell School in my Quickie Pulse 6 heavy-duty power chair, I fretted over the 20-page syllabus I had just read on “Critical Issues In The U.S.”

I tried to convince myself that I could handle this college thing. My mood improved as I navigated to a building where I felt I belonged, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. I rolled into Food.com, the gathering space that anchors the three buildings of the school.

I looked behind me and saw the tracks of melting snow unfurled on the floor, recording each turn of the wheels on my chair. Turning back around, I searched in vain for a familiar face, hoping for the intimacy I had known in my high school cafeteria. I see clusters of women in Ugg boots and men in Timberlands, many wearing bulky hoodies with Greek letters. Dozens of students are before me, rushing to their destinations or talking in groups of friends. They’re all strangers.

It wasn’t the fall semester anymore. I could no longer fall back on the “this is the first semester and it’ll get better” sentiment I had before Syracuse University’s holiday break. If it wasn’t beginning to improve now, perhaps it never would. And as I scrolled through the MAX 123 syllabus on the Blackboard app, I realized new obstacles on every page.

For the first time in my 18 years on this Earth, I felt alone. As I looked around me, I realized I was the same person in a different world. I still had cerebral palsy, still sat in the same wheelchair, still spoke in the same patterns, and still approached life in the same manner. But none of it mattered. I had no one to turn to if I needed something — no one to assist me if I got hungry, no one to help me communicate, no one to normalize my experience.

I had never been on such an island. I had been lost before — on my first day at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, for instance. But this was different. The one-on-one support I needed, the support I had taken for granted in grade and secondary school, was nonexistent. I began to realize I was completely reliant on my family. My mom dropped me off in the morning, went to Tops, and then met me outside class to escort me to the Newhouse School, where she helped me grab lunch.

My classmates were young adults, with developed notions about the community to which I belong. They see me as incapable, vulnerable, sorrowful, or their honorary peer. My complex identity looked simple to them, and college quickly became about what I was —  disabled — not about me as a student, as a journalist, or even as a person.

I felt trapped between two worlds: the independence of an ordinary college student and the convalescence of a disabled adult in a pool of 20,000 students. I felt alone. My former dream of independence and my existing fear of helplessness collided. I turned my head forward, and I saw groups of students mingling, including some of my fellow freshmen settling in on their four-year journeys.

Grades provided my only adrenaline rush. Classes challenged me, but I went to class, I turned in my work, and I earned the similar good grades that filled my high-school report cards. I could do this, at least academically. I had always known college would challenge me socially. But I had no idea it would be this hard.

It felt like quicksand.

Each time I tried to create relationships with my peers to escape my bubble, I sunk deeper. I hung on to singular threads of hope strung by a few conversations with fellow freshmen, but even those, I learned, wouldn’t evolve into the strong bonds I was looking for.

I found myself blaming others and getting angry about their perceptions of me. I found myself spending Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights thinking about the parties I longed to go to and the girls I wanted to talk to.

From time-to-time, I’d try to arrive at Newhouse early to embed myself as part of the community. I’d just park along the right wall and sit there, observing my mingling peers. My own chance to mingle never materialized.

The demanding nature of a college semester was unlike grade school. It required my full attention and forced me to set my priorities straight and fully acknowledge what would make me most successful.

I decided that what mattered most was investing in myself. I eventually found comfort in spending days in my bedroom doing coursework. I hated hiding from reality, but burying myself in my work was how I would succeed. It was then that I exhaled. I realized that there were some bright spots that I needed to take advantage of.

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I had gotten into the best communications school in the land. I had built relationships with an elite team of professors. I was writing for The Daily Orange, the top college newspaper, according to The Princeton Review, with a daily readership of more than 30,000 people.

Readers would see my byline and read my work and know nothing about my disability, I realized. Their first impression of me was as a writer — formerly an esports beat writer and now a journalist covering race and gender in the news — not as a disabled man.

Working a beat that touches on discrimination proved to be the start of a debate with myself that I will likely never resolve between not wanting to advertise my disability and embracing it as the cornerstone of my identity. It has provided me with an opportunity to leverage my experiences with my disability to give a voice to the voiceless. It has introduced me to the possibility of being a change agent, not only for people with disabilities but for all minorities.

It’s an opportunity I can’t throw away by sitting back in self-pity. I needed to either go all-in on my work or find a way to socialize. It took a while. But taking five classes my first semester sophomore year provided the answer, forcing me to do schoolwork all the time.

I found a way to get lost in the work. Sometimes it was coursework. Other times it was articles I took on for The Daily Orange and, from time-to-time, stories for my blog. The work became an escape. A coping mechanism. A distraction. The kind of distraction that works when I work, rests when I rest, that puts me to bed at night and wakes me up in the morning. The kind of distraction that provides the adrenaline rush I needed. The kind of distraction that kept me from dwelling on the negative noise.

The coursework, the escape, became my top priority. Whenever I wasn’t doing some kind of work, I would begin to think about all the ifs, so I ended up taking courses during summer and winter breaks to help maintain my tunnel vision. The summer following my freshman year, I took three classes, realizing that I had an opportunity to graduate in three years — before my 21st birthday. It became a challenge, and I realized I needed to invest in myself without thinking about what my peers were doing.

Now, as I prepare to graduate in May, a year early, I question where all that hard work has led me and what future awaits. The identity I invested in these three years was that I am a college student pursuing a career in journalism. Like my peers, I wouldn’t be going to Newhouse if I didn’t envision myself in the media.

But really, I ask myself, who do I want to be? A lifelong advocate for myself and others with disabilities?

As I have gone through college, I have noticed the inequalities formerly invisible to me. The support I received from family and in high school created a mirage. College removed the wool from my eyes and made it painfully apparent how little society has invested in people with disabilities.

After people like me leave high school, our reliance on family increases, rather than the other way around, because society has said, “You’re your family’s problem now.” The more different we are, the more we’re pushed to the side. Our needs are burdens. Our unwillful silence is confused for acquiescence.

How important is changing that to me? More important than being a boyfriend? A husband? A father? A grandfather? What did He put me on this earth to do?

I have a lot of faith. I pray each night, and I strongly believe everything happens for a reason — a reason we’re not always supposed to know.

I don’t wonder “why” because wondering why leads to nowhere. Wondering will keep me from reaching my potential. Nor do I imagine different circumstances. Nobody’s perfect. As my dad told me, everybody has a disability; people can just see and hear mine.

My dad and mom have me convinced that the sky’s the limit, but I’m a realist. I dream of what might await me, but I also need to create goals. The difference? I consider goals reachable. Dreams are fantasies.

It’s not black and white, though, and I often struggle with what is a goal and what exists as a glossy fantasy. Is getting married and having a family a goal or a dream, and how much do I want to chase it at the expense of making a difference? I don’t know.

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My parents have never told me I can’t do something. I have just grown to use the values — confidence, grit and determination — they provided me with to simply figure it out, and the three of us, with my brothers, learn as we go.

One thing I’ve learned is I’ll be better chasing one thing than overwhelming myself with 10 things. I was better off pouring everything into my schoolwork and writing than I would have been trying to make friends and going to parties every weekend. Will I be better off if I focus on journalism and disability advocacy rather than trying to have a girlfriend, get married, and eventually start a family?

Time will tell, but at this point, as I stare down graduation, I see two paths: conform to society’s individualistic nature or advocate for change through my disability. As I bounce between these poles, I struggle with how I can leverage my experience as a journalist with a disability. How can I combine my experiences with a disability with my passion for journalism?

Since the disability community is often ignored and invisible, coverage of these issues is scarce. And I understand them. Can I use my experiences to cover stories, people, events — to hold the powerful accountable? I have spent the semester reporting on disability issues for my column on The NewsHouse. But is that enough?

One thing I know for sure: I need to do meaningful work without having the disability itself define me.

My parents have been weighing these questions longer than I have. We often talk about how none of us has the answers. But in my first semester of sophomore year, these questions came to the forefront. The three of us would sit down and talk about how I wanted to approach life and how I wanted to weigh doing what’s best for myself and doing what’s best for the disability community. Over and over, as we searched for answers, we would come up dry. But that didn’t surprise me.

These kinds of questions, I have learned, have no answers. But one thing I do return to is that I have to do something. I have to figure out how to maximize my potential. My potential lies in disability advocacy, minority advocacy, and writing. How do I combine those? Would simply being a journalist sell my community short? Should I go to law school, perhaps?

The list of questions keeps growing, and I don’t have a lot of answers. But I am beginning to understand that I have the potential to do something special. I have faith that He put me here to change the world in ways few people can and to be the voice for millions who can’t speak and who fall victim to the same ableist system.

Deconstructing the Divide

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Avatar for Joey Pagano

is a journalism senior, a contributor and digital producer for The NewsHouse.

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is a 2020-21 Advanced Military Photojournalism Program student and a contributor for The NewsHouse.