Des Moines Oral History Project
Interviewer: Matt McManus
Interviewee: Michelle Laughlin
Conducted on 10/18/17


Me: Hi Michelle, how are you?

Michelle: I am good

Me: So just to start off, if it’s alright with you, could you tell me about yourself?

Michelle: Sure, what areas would you like me to focus on?

Me: Tell me about who the Michelle Laughlin, is that how you say it?

Michelle: Is Laughlin

Me: Laughlin

Michelle: Well no some say Laughlin but we pronounce it Laughlin

Me: I have friend with the same last name so I’ve, she wants it one way, okay

Michelle: We got tired of spelling it with what is was pronounced Laughlin, so we switched it ourselves and pronounced it Laughlin

Me: So tell me about the Drake University employee Michelle Laughlin?

Michelle: alright well let me start off I’ll tell you the basics, I am have been here for 12 years, almost 13. And I am married, have been to my husband for 15 years, his name is Doug, we have 2 kids, Colin who is almost 21, he cannot wait, I can. He is a junior at Iowa state and Mackenzie is my senior in high school at Johnston, she is currently on the college search, all of that kind of fun stuff. So those are the basics, so now is that what you wanted or you wanted me to dive into my disability?

Me: I mean I have no aim, I am just wanting to know who you are as a person, who you are as a person, why are you in the field that you are in?

Michelle: Okay, so disability, my disability does not define who I am and so that is why I asked you wanted me to focus on that part of me. So you know, some of the things I am interested in is, when you have kids you don’t have a whole lot of time to spend on your own self-interests, so now I am starting to realize that with her leaving soon and being an empty nester that it will be going, I finally get time for me. I love to read, I love to, I taught myself how to nit, you know all of those kinda grandma things, you know I’m not a grandma, but practicing for those days. But I am, I have decided my biggest goal slash dream has always been to write and to speak. So I have done several different speeches. Motivational in nature, that talk about my disability, talk about how my life is affected because I have affected because of my disability, how do get others to realize their potential based upon you know, what they have and what they have and what they don’t have type thing. And so that’s what lead me to work here. Is that I started out as a grad student at drake and in the area of school counseling, I wanted to be a school counselor. Started in the fall semester by the second semester, halfway through the second semester I heard that this position being student disability services position was open and so I applied and got it, which was awesome because it fit right up my ally. So I was thinking it was a good way of thinking to get drake to pay my tuition, which was awesome, but I did not know that is where I would stay. So I had the desire to be a school counselor, did an internship, realized that what I was doing in the internship as a school counselor was very much what I did here. decided to stay. and here I am. So now I have drakes going to pay for my daughters tuition.

Me: There you go

Michelle: It all works out I have hidden motives. But I think what kept me here was the ability to see students succeed and that’s always been my goal. Not just to make sure they have the accommodations they need because obviously that is my role here but to see them go from those first year students struggling in a to if different areas to being a senior where there is saying, and were seeing such growth and graduation on the horizon and job possibilities on the horizon, that to me is fulfilling. And so that is why I am here and this is why I stay

Me: well those are all pretty good reasons and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. So earlier you talked about disability and how your own disability played a role in your own future. Not only this position but also where you wound up to where you thought you were going to be to where you are now.

Michelle: right
Me: how do you, and we will get to the speech and writing soon, how do you see not just your disability but how do you see disability in your personal eyes?

Michelle: Hm, that’s a good question. To me disability has never been a defining feature and disability is part of your life, so for those that only see their disability as either being limiting or all ending or ‘I can’t do this’, that or the other thing that is not how ever I believed in disability. So when I see disability or when I work with students with disability I want them to realize to use their disability as an asset that because it is part of them that they had to work harder yes. But because they have had to work harder they’ve learned more about themselves, they have been able to achieve more, go forward more. To me my parents have always told me that growing up, because I was born with my disability, growing up, I never thought I was different. So when I think about disabilities I don’t think of differences I hate the term ‘differently abled’ that annoys me. Because it’s not that were different abled, were able, we just have a few other things what we have to do to achieve the same thing. Differently abled makes it sound like were the ability is elsewhere that it is not doing what everybody else does to me. I’m abled, it just me a little longer to do something or different to do something. Anyway that’s just my own little two sense. But disability should never be that defining piece of your life. I hope that I get that across to my students. Obviously there are those that are going to see their disability as limiting to see it as ‘I can’t do this because I have this disability so I need extra this or extra that’ instead of trying to figure out strategies of how to get to those places. The students that work the hardest are those that I see work hard are those that say ‘I no longer need the accommodations because I have figured it out’ or ‘yes I still need the accommodations because I’m not there yet, but I am to a point where I’m feeling more comfortable’, that’s where I feel I have done my job. When they figure out how to live their life with a disability. When I talk to young kids, most of my young, I used the definition of disability is when part of your body doesn’t function properly so that adaptations are necessary to live your life independently. Simple, easy to the point. Obviously, the parts of my body are the limbs that aren’t there. adaptation that I needed in my life are a wheelchair. That’s about it. Adaptation that other need like perhaps somebody who has a visual disability or a hearing loss or even a learning disability, those are the parts that don’t work so my job here is to make sure they have the adaptations they need to be independent. So to me disability is just that. It’s a part of who you are and what’s inside you.
Me: That’s a great way of phrasing it. And we have talked about this before, what is the, you talked about how you want to be a writer and want to speak and to get a message across. Not just what kind of message you want to get across but, what do you feel is your best way to get your message across?

Michelle: Well I have a dentine of other different mediums. I have a blog that I, and I can give you access to the blog, I mean it’s on Facebook. But I have done blogs before, but you know with the speaking my main message is this, my main message is it is all in the attitude. In fact, I use Charles Swindoll is a Christian writer and one of his passages is called attitudes and I end every single one of his readings because it basically says life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. That’s the one element that we have control over. We can’t control what other people think. We can’t control what other people but we can control our attitude and how we reach to it. So if someone were to see me for example, I have students, well I have a couple of students, I have had kids be scared because I am different or people make assumptions a lot of times because I have one disability that I must have 15 different ones [pause]

Me: The slue

Michelle: [resume] and I get that. But so I could let that define, depress me and feel sorry for myself and woe is me but because I have always had the attitude of being given one life and its up to me to choose how to live it. And I have chose to live my life happily. There are some days that, the bad days that I have absolutely zero to do with my disability, they all have stuff to do with me but my disability is never a factor. I never feel sorry for myself because I have disability, now granted that there are times when my vehicle doesn’t work and I can’t just jump into just another van or another car because of my wheel chair. Do I feel sorry for myself? I have my pity parties yes but that’s not, I’m not feeling sorry because I have a disability but because I am stuck and I don’t have 2 or 3 vehicles just waiting. But I wouldn’t change what I have done, I wouldn’t change my life for anything because my life experiences have lead to a lot of different, everyone else’s life experiences too. When I speak and when I write I try and get my audience to see that I am a very ordinary person. My dreams and goals are like everyone else, I have kids, I have a job, I have passions, I have all of that just like everyone else, mine just a little bit different. My speech I gave last week was, the tile of it was “living and ordinary life, extraordinarily”. I found a meme, or whatever you call them, that stated, that extraordinary means and ordinary life with just a little extra. and [pause]

Me: I see the word play [laughter]

Michelle: [laughter], [resume] and so when I think about that I do have some extra things but it is because of those extra things that have given me a different perspective, a better perspective on life.

Me: I think the thing about attitudes is something in something in the world of disability that a lot of people don’t see as a pathway for not changing people just to see people. And with attitudes, what’s the biggest challenge with challenge people to see a different attitude and to have a different attitude? Not only that message to other people but that other people may have?

Michelle: Well let me first use myself as for an example first and then I’ll get into students. For me when people have attitudes towards me about, well if you’re in a wheel chair so it must mean that you can’t do this. People have strong attitudes and opinions about me that there is no way you can be a mom, there’s no way that you could have a career because you have limited me. Their attitude is that people that have disability can’t do something. And thankfully there are very few of those people. So I mean you go the campus, so there’s those that have an attitude. Let me give you one example and the student is no longer here and I won’t use names. He came in and to my office and this was about 8 years ago and he said, “Wow, I thought I had a disability until I met you.” And I chuckled and he said something along the lines of “I don’t need help because your disability is so much worse than mine.” But what was ironic is yes he did need help, he is no longer here because of the fact that he needed help and he chose not to accept it. So to me when students or others with disabilities don’t accept their disability, that limiting. When you say you have ADHD or yes I have a learning disability, or yes I have hearing loss but I’m going to do whatever I can to live my life. That acceptance. When you say I can’t do this because I have ADHD, then that’s where your limiting. And that right there is a difference in attitude.

Me: Is that a hard thing about disability? I mean you can talk about the 5 senses, that there are so many different ways that you can see, interact, and be around disability? You could see someone who is visual disabled by definition, they may not think so but by definition, they would be disabled but then there is someone like myself or my brother who is internally, mentally, disabled. What is the challenge with having all those different thoughts and feelings about disability.

Michelle: I think for people with obvious disabilities, I think that life forces them to make a choice, you can either chose to accept your disability and live or chose to feel sorry for yourself and not get what you need. Okay, so obvious disabilities put you in a different bucket so to speak, those with hidden disabilities can really just chose to go into oblivion that ‘I don’t have anything wrong with me’, that its okay. I mean you’re [me] a prime example. How many months did it take you to come see me to begin with and then how many months beyond that before you finally clicked and yes these are making me a better person and these are helping me get to the same goals that everybody else is getting to but I don’t have to struggle as hard. Or because I have struggled harder these accommodations are helping me in that way. So I think the differences are the fact that having an obvious disability, you get judged a lot easier. then again someone with a hidden disability can go through life people not knowing or being able to judge. Also not having to make that choice of how you are going to live.

Me: Disability is just like a can of worms, there’s a lot attached to it, period.

Michelle: It is, there is.

Me: That’s where this discussion exists and that’s where attitudes exist with the ordinary and the extra ordinary. That’s where all of that is under the same roof, under the same umbrella and we are just living in that world.

Michelle:  Well and I use this as an example in my speech last week. So when I talked about ordinary, I got out the thesaurus and I founds words that defined ordinary and one of the biggest words that stuck out to me is normal. I not say that extraordinary is the total opposite where extraordinary means your abnormal but for me I have always strived to live my life normally. I want to be just like everyone else. Somebody who has a hidden disability is like everyone else and has to make that definitive choice of, ‘do I accept my disability and receive help or do I continue to live the way I have been’. And sometimes that doesn’t work, right?!

Me: Correct [Both laugh], that is 100% the truth, I can not deny that at all

Michelle: Just sayin’

Me: it is just a wonder of how things can get so entangled in what people think in all their attitudes. That’s the center piece of where disability can evolve from to not think of normal and not normal, but to just think of disability as normal. Some people do think that

Michelle: And for me it is. So I get asked a lot, how do you do this with one hand or how do you see this with one hand. It automatic. Just like for you. The easiest example I can think of is brushing your teeth. Obviously put the toothbrush in one hand and put the toothpaste in the other hand and put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, use both hands. For me I obviously don’t have the second hand. So just like in nature, animals figure out how to do things instinctively, just like with me. Put the toothbrush in my mouth and put the toothpaste on that way. Using what I had. So I don’t know how to teach somebody to do my hair with one hand or how to put my earing or necklace one with one hand. I just do it because I had to. Yea, that’s just been what it is. That is my normal.

Me: Every individual is different, and has different experiences, people are not the same, normal is not the same for a lot of people. I’m a sociology major and [pause]

Michelle: That’s not normal
Me: [resume] and that’s not normal [Michelle laughs]. Even in that we have norms in our culture, we have things that define what is normal, what is not normal, what’s a taboo and so on and so forth sociology. But what is normal to my life is not normal to my next door neighbor, a classmate, or to anyone listening to this. The word by itself is almost flawed in that it is only based in perspective. So how do you see, not just normality, but disability evolving in todays America.

Michelle: In my 12, almost 13, its evolved in the fact that A. People are apt to get tested because they might see something might be something off. Parents might be more in tune with their kids, saying ‘wow, he is struggling with reading, lets get him tested for a learning disability. my son for example, in first grade the teacher said he is really struggling in reading but I think He needs glasses. We got him tested for glasses and sure enough he needed glasses and it changed the way he could focus. So its something simple like that. And parents are more in tune and teachers are looking out, more interested in what their kids are doing, trying to get them help. So my numbers have grown a lot in the past 12 years, like a lot. But then you have, when talking about America, the passing of the ADA some years ago changed a lot of how people view people with disabilities so when you’re looking at making things accessible, making sure equal rights, has evolved. I mean we have come full circle. People with disabilities are no longer kept in the closet, institutions are different, teaching them how to live independently in a world where if they were at home they wouldn’t be able to. Or to give them opportunities. Yes disabilities are evolving because there is more resources, more awareness, more acceptance for people with disabilities. I was born before the ADA was in existence. Let me back up 100 steps to look at how I was raised. my parents did not let me believe that I would have a disability. They knew I had a disability and accepted that, what they didn’t let me do is to whine and complain because something isn’t right. If I didn’t like something it was okay, either you fix it or your figure out a way to deal with it. Accessibility was made better by the ADA and I am also one that is a firm believer in that I can get into a store though a back door, I am okay with that. I can still get into the store. I am not one to demand to get into the front door. that is how I was raised. Does it feel weird going to the back door, of course. but, because of my disability I have also gotten advantages so, do I get to have rock star parking, absolutely. Do I complain about that heck no. Do I jump ahead of everybody else at amusement parks because I have to take a different entrance/exist, I don’t complain about that either. Those are very broad, weird examples but it is again how you want to handle it. Yes the ADA changed a lot of perceptions and changed a lot of things being accessible to all. I will fight to the death for my students to make sure they get what they need. When it comes to my own self, it will be like, meh, ill figure it out. Ill figure it out because I am resourceful that way.

Me: So is that then a challenge to your students to accept the challenge of challenge?

Michelle: I think so. I mean I hope so because I don’t want them to think that because they have a disability that everything will automatically get handed to them. And I raise my own kids that way, don’t have these expectations in life just because I have a disability doesn’t mean people need to clear the path for me. Does it make my life easier, of course but do I expect it, no. If I need it done then I figure out a way to do it then. I remember a time when I was at UNI, campus planners hated me. My job was with the student disabilities office at UNI and part of my job was essentially, when I was on campus and I saw something wrong I needed to make sure that people who could do something about it, did something about it. So the campus planner heard from me a lot, ‘by the way there is a huge crack in the sidewalk that someone on crutches will get stuck in’. By the time graduation was going on, the same individual was in charge of graduation and he said, ‘I’m so excited that your graduating because your driving me nuts’. That right there started my advocacy. I would see someone struggle and I would want to help them. At the same time you see some students who take advantage, and there is not many of them, but take advantage of their disability, yeah you owe me this because XYZ, entitlement is a very very horrible word but there are people with disabilities that feel that they are entitled to receive and I have never been raised that way. Now off my soapbox now

Me: Please do, if there is something that is on your chest you want to get off, is there something compelling that you need to say to add to the conversation. Please do so, that is of upmost importance I think because it is almost better in any situation to say something rather than not say something.

Michelle: Oh I think you’ll find that I am very open minded [both laugh]. I always feel free to speak almost to a fault.

Me: I will agree. Openness is good.

Michelle: obviously, there are restraints that I must maintain for my students but that is okay. I can think them. [both laugh again] Just kidding.

Michelle: On any medical sheet, website of whatever I am considered severely disabled. My dad did not believe that and so he did not accept assistance that he could have. They were proud and paving the way of taking that hand out cause that’s how he saw it. Hindsight, I’m like, geez dad just think if you would have taken that. But then there are others and have a hangnail and feel the world is owed to them. When I say that kind of stuff its a generational thing, needing to figure out stuff on my own vs. Now where it is expected to have other people figure out what I need. That’s where my job has changed.

Me: Do you think that with your parents raising you, because of what you said about your parents earlier and how they raised you, could you speak more on that?

Michelle: My parents are the absolute number 1 besides my faith, are the way I am. They are the reason I am independent, they are the reason I have lived the life I do. It took my parents 3 days before they figured out what they wanted to do with me. When I was born, they did not know I was going to be born this way, there wasn’t testing like now, it just didn’t happen. When I was born, it was pretty big shock. So they had a couple of days where they toyed back and forth with, do we take her home, do we leave her in an institution, do we put her up for adoption, that’s where their thought process were. It wasn’t until they saw me on the 3rd day that they decided they could do it and take me home. But because they had those moments of doubt, they had lead me to believe that I could do anything. If I wanted to go out for cheerleading, did they think that I could do it, no, but did they let me try, sure. Did I think I could play the trumpet? they had saw those things that they had questions and they knew everyone else was going to have questions but they let me try it out. But now if they let me try something and I failed, they weren’t there to say ‘I told you so’, they were there to help me pick up the pieces and encourage me to try again or encourage me to try something else. And they raised both my sisters the same way. And because they raised us that way, we raised our kids in a very similar fashion. Yeah you could do whatever you want to do but don’t expect that, yes we will always be there to support you but we will not do it for you. And I think that makes a ginormous difference.
Me: In my life that is something that I have interacted with, that my parents will be there for you, but wont be able to do it for you. My hands can not keep up with my mouth.

Michelle: Your okay, your okay your going great.
Me: Is there anything you would like to add to this 44:29 second story so far?

Michelle: I think there’s a big chunk of my story that hasn’t been shared yet, whether that is a now or second interview type thing. While yes I have disability, no the disability does not define me, I do what I want when I can sort of thing. But it’s that latter two current part of my life where my life is truly as normal it can be because I have raised two kids. And so there have been a lot of questions about ‘how are you going to take care of them’, ‘how are you going to do this, how are you going to do that’ and so I think that was my probably my biggest challenges is right there when I decided to have kids. And the doubters that came with it, the people who didn’t think I could do it. So I think that is a huge part of my life, and where I struggle is that it is a huge part of any moms life is of course there kids. And so when I speak, part of my biggest problem when I speak is I don’t know what to charge. I could do this for free, I get up there and talk to 500 people I don’t care I will share my story because I don’t think my life is different than anybody else’s. And so people think ‘so that’s your story, you don’t think you are different, but you are’ but then I say that I am not. And so I have that argument in my head, I have that with others, that my life. I have the same line as everyone else, get education, get married, have kids, get more education, and then I throw in a little extra. That’s a hard thing for me to accept because I want to be like everybody else and what’s a hard thing for me to accept is that people view me as different.

Me: I think I want to come back to this because it is very good discussion point for another 48 minutes of discussion time.

Michelle: I think that I being it up is because I did do things a lot differently when I raised my kids because I had to. And there is a bunch of stories there. there are stories that people are most fascinated with when I speak.

Me: That will definitely be adding to the wonderful conversation we are having for next time, and, end. Des Moines Oral History Project