Going Backward to Move Forward

Best friends Ellie and Megan, involved with Mizzou Disability Coalition, recognized with Mizzou 39.

Ellie Stitzer and Megan Stober pose on Traditions Plaza after being recognized with Mizzou 39. Photo by Amber Cheek.
Ellie and Megan are both students in the School of Health Professions. Photo by Alexis Cettina.

Story by Ellie Stitzer
Photos by Alexis Cettina and Jennifer Manning

On Feb. 26, around 6:39 p.m., I was standing in line outside of the Reynolds Alumni Center preparing to be inducted into the 2019 class of Mizzou 39. As I got closer to the stage on Traditions Plaza, I watched as the inductees in line in front of me spun around and walked backwards in order to hide their identities from the eagerly awaiting crowd.

It was not until this moment I realized that this meant I was going to have to attempt to drive my wheelchair in reverse, which I, unsurprisingly, do not do often. I yelled nervously to Megan Stober, who was standing behind me in line, “Do you think I can do it backwards?!” to which she immediately replied, “Yes, just go for it!” She grabbed one of the handlebars on the back of my chair and helped guide me as she walked with her back to the crowd.

Megan and I have been best friends since the sixth grade and grew up in Columbia together, but our Mizzou stories started differently.

Different Paths

I was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and have used a wheelchair basically my entire life. I entered Mizzou dealing both with the new stresses of college as well as accessibility challenges related to my disability.

As a result, my first year here was a bit of a struggle. This changed when I met my mentor Amber Cheek, the ADA coordinator for campus, toward the end of my freshman year. She encouraged me to join several disability advocacy organizations, and through these I was introduced to a community of people at Mizzou who had a deep passion for disability rights like I do. This invigorated me, and I made it my mission to improve the accessibility of campus.

Ellie Stitzer is introduced as a member of Mizzou 39 on Traditions Plaza.
Photo by Jennifer Manning.

Megan entered Mizzou “able-bodied,” but during the fall of her sophomore year, she realized she could no longer fit into any of her boots. Alarmed by this sudden change, she had several diagnostic tests done and was eventually diagnosed with primary lymphedema: a rare chronic disorder caused by a dysfunction in her lymphatic system. This meant she would have to get used to wearing compression socks routinely, which are not only uncomfortable but also invited unwanted stares and questions.

Instead of choosing to view her newfound sense of identity as someone with a disability in a negative light, Megan embraced it. Over time, she became comfortable talking openly about her disability and wearing clothing that showed off her compression garments.

Both Megan and I found a passion for advocacy through our pride in our identities as disabled people. Over our time here, we have often collaborated on projects and supported each other’s individual efforts.

Support Through MDC

Personally, my involvement with the Mizzou Disability Coalition (MDC) has been one of my most cherished and enriching experiences since coming to Mizzou. MDC is a student-run disability advocacy organization that I joined my sophomore year.

Ellie Stitzer headshot with Mizzou in background
Ellie Stitzer

One of my favorite memories from MDC was when I first got to lead our annual Accessibility Walk. This walk takes administrators on a tour of the state of accessibility of campus, pointing out both positive accomplishments and areas in need of improvement. It was incredibly empowering to sit in my wheelchair in front of administrators and use my unique perspective to educate them on issues that would otherwise be overlooked.

After the walk, several of the issues I identified were fixed. Since this experience, I have become president of the organization. I have worked to increase the number of disabled students in the organization and mentored them in order to have a group that will continue to work to improve the accessibility of Mizzou after I have graduated. At this past year’s Accessibility Walk, I watched four new members with disabilities use their own powerful voices to lead the walk and speak with administrators about their concerns, an experience that truly filled me with pride.

Megan Stober headshot with Mizzou in background
Megan Stober

Megan has also left a lasting impact on campus through her work. The semester after her diagnosis, Megan took Amber Cheek’s Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities course. During a lecture about accessibility coordinators and the role they play within organizations, it clicked for Megan that Greek life, which she had been involved in since first coming to Mizzou, needed something like this: someone who was actively working to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities in their community.

Amber worked with Megan to map out the responsibilities of this position, and Megan emailed her proposal to every executive member of the Greek council, hoping someone would respond. During the following months, the new president decided to make Megan’s idea the main focus of her term.

Together, they changed the coordinator into a committee and formed the country’s first PHA Accessibility Committee. Over the past semester, Megan has led this committee as they lay the groundwork for more accessible Panhellenic communities around the country. Their work has ranged from creating accommodation plans and guides to help chapters plan accessible events, to working with Columbia Public Works to begin plans for fixing sidewalks.

Community Builders

As I sat next to my best friend with my back to the crowd on reveal night, waiting for my name to be called, I thought about the community Megan and I have become a part of here. We have met a group of incredible disabled people and allies who empower one another and build each other up with endless support. We have grown together in our identities, our confidence, and our skills as leaders.

Being honored with this award alongside my partner in crime felt like the perfect way to commemorate the end of such a treasured time in our lives. I think if our sixth grade selves could see us, they’d be pretty proud.

Members of Mizzou 18 and Mizzou 39 pose at the conclusion of the recognition ceremony. Photo by Jennifer Manning.