My name is Audrey Keller and I spent pretty much my whole life dreaming of coming to Duke. Everything was on track with this plan when I was accepted Early Decision in December of 2011. However, this dream of being a part of the Class of 2016 was nearly snatched from me on June 13th, 2012, when my horse flipped over on me, crushing the bones in my pelvic region.
One of the first questions I remember asking in the hospital was would I be able to go to Duke in August. The answer was no, and I would be in a wheelchair for three months to boot. I burst into tears immediately, and then decided that “no” simply was not an option for me. I was going no matter what, and continued to make housing arrangements and register for classes from the hospital.
Come August I was blessed to finally be pain-free and independent enough that school actually was an option after all, but the catch was that I would still have to spend the first three and a half weeks of my freshman year in a wheelchair. Though I decided to continue with my plan to go to Duke, I was nervous about it for several reasons. I did not want people to see me as disabled. I did not want people to mistakenly think that I was permanently disabled. I was afraid that I would not be able to participate in social life and O-Week fully with my friends, and I was positive that guys would not give me a second glance.
On the first day of O-Week I moved into my large, accessible room with the help of my parents and roommate, a girl I had met through a friend at Blue Devil Days the previous spring. I also received a text message from a good friend of mine from high school who was a sophomore. He told me he wanted me to come to a party his fraternity was throwing that night and to bring friends. My immediate thought was that there was no way I could even get to the party. Nonetheless, I told my roommate and a few other girls I had met, and they decided that we would find a way to get me there.
Duke’s campus is big and old, but the Disabilities Office has done a lot to make it accessible. The first treat we discovered that night was that the buses are, in fact, wheelchair-friendly (as much as they can be). They have a ramp and a place to secure a wheelchair. Because of this we were able to get me to West, the location of that night’s party. However, Duke is not perfect, and we discovered upon arriving at the fraternity’s section that there is not a wheelchair-accessible entrance. No problem. A very nice guy carried me in, and though I was on edge about being perceived differently, I found that people were shockingly normal around me.
For the next three and a half weeks people carried me into parties (often up several flights of stairs) and sat on couches to talk to me. Coming to Duke I had essentially expected to miss out on the typical O-Week freshman experience, but in the end I didn’t. I was so surprised that people took my disability in stride without ever making me feel bad for being there. I was also surprised to find that guys really did not treat me differently. One time, in a moment of unusual boldness, I actually asked a guy wasn’t it weird to be interested in me because I couldn’t walk. He said, no, I seemed like a normal girl to him. That was an eye-opening moment for me. I also first got to know my current boyfriend right when I got out of the wheelchair and was still limping and walking with a cane. Clearly it didn’t bother him too much since he stuck around.
I discovered that I myself, as a disabled person, had harbored a stigma against disabled people. I didn’t think people saw the disabled as potential friends and love-interests in the same way as able-bodied people. I have since come to realize that I underestimated my peers, and that they saw me for who I really was more than I expected. I will be forever thankful for that because it gave me the emotional strength to get through that time and enjoy Duke the way I had always hoped to.
- Audrey Keller