On paper, Joshua Cooper is like every other college student striving toward a bright future, while also trying to balance a social life. Yet, many people fail to see the similarities between themselves and Cooper as they focus their attention to one aspect of his life: his wheel chair.
At 18 months old, Cooper was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy type II, a disease that affects the motor neurons of the muscles and the synapse.
“I do everything others do just in my own way,” Cooper said. “The biggest pet peeve I have is when people underestimate my capabilities.”
He said that such doubts only fuel his drive to succeed.
Cooper said that though his disability has closed many doors, such as playing sports as a child or getting a driver’s license, it has opened many more.
“I wouldn’t be in law school becoming a lawyer without my wheel chair,” Cooper said. “It’s helped put me where I am now.”
Cooper was a Good Will Ambassador for New Jersey’s Muscular Dystrophy Association. He graduated from Seton Hall in May 2016 and is now working toward his law degree at Seton Hall Law School so he can one day work at the district attorney’s office.
“I see him and I see someone without limitations,” said one of Cooper’s law professors, Brian Sheppard.
For Sheppard, Cooper has made him a better professor, reminding him of his own blind spots, especially when it comes to making higher education accessible to people with physical disabilities.
“People overlook [the] kinds of things that can be done to accommodate his needs and to even the playing field,” said Sheppard, recalling an instance when Cooper had to point out to Sheppard that he could not easily take notes using the desks in the lecture hall.
“He’s a steady and helpful reminder to be thoughtful as a professor,” Sheppard said. “He’s motivation for me to face challenges head on.”
Unfortunately, not everyone sees Cooper in a positive light. He shared a memory of someone calling him “a waste of space” on social media his junior year of college and the effects of what he called the “disability bubble.”
“They think I have something contagious and so sometimes people don’t sit next to me in class,” Cooper said. “They’re not looking at me as a person.”
Cooper’s girlfriend, Kate Peterson, said that his wheelchair also causes people to be overly polite.
“It’s like parting the Red Sea- everyone gets out of the way,” Peterson said.
She added that people often think she is his aide when they go out together and stare when they realize they are just a couple holding hands.
“It’s not that big of a deal. I wish I could convince that to people,” Peterson said. “His body might not be working right, but everything else about him is there.”
According to his friend of five years, Jamila DePena, Cooper never lets anyone tread softly when it comes to his disability, and he is always the first one to laugh at himself. She said that she does not know where she would be without his unwavering friendship and his ability to make her smile, even on her worst days.
“He’s taught me not to treat people differently, he’s never let me treat him differently, but to see the person behind the wheel chair,” DePena said.
Cooper said he lives by the mantra “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.” His advice to everyone, disabled or not, is simple:
“Keep looking forward,” he said. “The only bad day was yesterday; the good day is tomorrow.”
Payton Seda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.