No one expected Joe Brown of Mooresville, N.C., to go to college. He has a progressive disability that affects his speech and movement, and it’s getting worse with time. But in June of this year, he graduated from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and left a lasting impact on his teachers, fellow students, and the school itself.
He didn’t want to let his disability stop him. At 22 years of age, three years after finishing high school, he enrolled at a local community college, becoming the first in his family to go. Two years later, he transferred to UNC at Chapel Hill, hoping to get into the undergraduate business program.
“I didn’t really know the options for someone with a disability. I didn’t know if I would be able to do anything,” he says. “But eventually I got the motivation. I decided that if I didn’t get a job, it was not going to be because I didn’t try.”
During his two years at Kenan-Flagler, Brown faced inconveniences and an accident that destroyed his wheelchair. But with the help of the campus community, he was able to pull through and participate in everything from study abroad to physically exerting graduation traditions.
ARRIVING AT KENAN-FLAGLER
When he arrived at Kenan-Flagler for the first time, Anna Millar, director of admissions, academics and student engagement for the undergraduate program, remembers being concerned right away.
“Right from the start, I was like, oh my goodness, I hope we can take this student,” she says. “But getting into the business program is very challenging. We turn away more than half our applicants. And getting in as a transfer student is even more challenging.”
Often, students hoping to get into the B-school for their junior and senior years haven’t completed the necessary requirements. But Millar says she was blown away by how prepared Brown was. He was accepted, and Millar says they were thrilled to have him.
BUT AT FIRST, KENAN-FLAGLER WASN’T HANDICAP-FRIENDLY
Brown has Friedreich’s Ataxia, a rare disease that causes nervous system damage and impaired movement. And it has gotten noticeably worse over the years. He says he didn’t use a wheelchair until high school, and in college, his movement became even more limited.
At Kenan-Flagler, getting into the school was only the first hurdle. Once there, Brown had trouble getting around, because most of the doors did not have automatic door openers.
Nicholas Didow, one of Brown’s professors, says that in lieu of automatic doors, fellow students would prop the door open so Brown could roll in when he arrived. A seat was also saved for him in the classroom. Even so, when Brown spoke to the administration about putting in new doors, Millar says they tried to do it as quickly as they could.
“Joe has just been a ray of light,” Millar says. “Our school wasn’t as equipped as we’d have hoped for a student in a wheelchair. But he really helped guide us, and was so patient as we had automatic doors installed.”
By the time he graduated, Brown says nearly all the doors in the school were handicapped enabled.