Under the surface: UA students discuss their lives beyond their disabilities


Jake Stevens

Shelby Baron and Rebecca Combs share a laugh on the Quad. 

CW/ Jake Stevens

Matthew Wilson

Like many women her age, Shelby Baron worries about blemishes on her cheeks that few will ever notice. She worries about the graduation record exam and making a high enough score so she won’t have to take it again. Like most college students on the cusp of graduating, she worries about her future, making plans to continue her communicative disorders degree in graduate school at The University of Alabama. She’d go elsewhere, but her friends are here and so is her passion — tennis.

She plans to be a speech pathologist in San Diego one day. Where else would she go on vacation when born in the sun and sand of Hawaii? Baron has more clothes than she knows what to do with. She has bags full of the mementos from her travels, many emblazoned in Team USA, sitting in her room waiting to be donated.

At the young age of 21, she’s become something of a world traveler, though she rarely ever sees more than the tennis courts. From Taiwan, Japan, France, The Netherlands, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and back again, she rarely has the time to stay in one spot, already planning her next excursions to Canada and Mexico. Recently, her travels took her to D.C. and the White House where she shook hands with Barrack Obama and the First Lady. None of that is apparent to some people when they first meet her, not even the aforementioned blemish she insecurely fretted over. Instead their eyes glance down to the wheelchair.

“Sometimes I forget I’m in a wheelchair, or I forget that I’m disabled,” she said. “Someone pointed this out to me in high school, ‘When I dream, and you’re in my dream, you’re never disabled.’ When I dream, I’m not ever disabled either.”

Born with spina bifida, Baron’s legs are too weak to support her body. When she was in the womb, her spinal cord didn’t form correctly. For much of her formative years, she used crutches to get around, and when she got her first wheelchair, she knew she wanted to play a sport.

Her love for tennis came from a friendly competition with her brother. He had just started taking tennis lessons, wanting to play a sport where the ball couldn’t hit him unlike soccer or volleyball, and Baron played the sport with him. While playing tennis, Baron also learned the basics of how to maneuver a wheelchair, how to push and pull to turn right, to tuck her chin in case of a fall and how to do a wheelie.

“Learning how to do a wheelie saved my life in some situations,” Baron said. “That’s how I go down a curb. That’s how I go down a really steep hill. It’s just really really helpful.”

She even got to the point where she could beat her brother at the game.

“That was my goal,” she said. “He doesn’t enjoy tennis as much as he used to, so that’s probably why I shot up.”

Tennis was a way for her to connect with others on her small secluded island. Basketball required 10 wheelchairs and people, but with tennis, she could play anyone. Playing tennis brought her to countries around the world on the international tennis tour, to The University of Alabama to play and eventually to a spot on Team USA for the Paralympics in Rio. And it all started on that court with her brother on a small island in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.

Outside of tennis, Baron is intently focused on her major because she wants to help people. She hopes to one day work in a rehab clinic or children’s hospital where she can do some good. It was during a communicative disorders class a few years ago where she first met Rebecca Combs, and the two fast became best friends.

Combs, a senior majoring in accounting, had wanted to follow a career in special education before deciding it didn’t quite fit. In high school, she had started a club to promote inclusivity between the special education class and the general population, hosting activities like tie-dying t-shirts, baking cookies and playing games. In college, she volunteered with her sorority, Kappa Delta, for Crossing Points, a program for college age students with intellectual disabilities. Every spring, they host a spring prom with Alpha Tau Omega where the students get to dress up, ride in limos and take their pictures in front of the President’s Mansion.

“I felt like I could see who they were past their disability,” Combs said. “A lot of the kids in [special needs program] were nonverbal or had some sort of mental defect, and that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them like a normal person. They still want to talk about normal teenage things like crushes, friends or going to the movies.”

A Charlotte, North Carolina, native, Combs plans to move back there upon graduating and get a job in the budget department at the local YMCA she’s been volunteering at since age 16. She might continue her horse riding career also. She has a drawer full of medals, ribbons and trophies among pictures of her horses Michael, MacGyver and Shadow. Since she was three years old, a time many were in diapers, she’s ridden horses.

Part of a therapeutic horseback riding program, being on a saddle was one of the few places Combs felt absolute freedom. Born with the congenital movement disorder cerebral palsy, Combs mostly uses a walker to get around. The eight-minute distance between her sorority house and her class becomes a marathon and test of endurance.

“Being up on the horse and knowing your in control, you can do what you want to do and go where you want to go,” she said. “For me, a lot of times I’m restricted on that sort of thing, so I liked being in control and doing what I wanted to do.”

But, it’s not a challenge. It’s just life for her. She’s never known any different. Going to class is going to class. Taking a shower is taking a shower. Brushing her teeth is brushing her teeth. She just has to set aside more time to get done, and by the end of the day, she might be more tired than some.

Often, she forgets there’s anything different about her. Being in a sorority has brought her a sense of sisterhood, the freedom of independence with the security of someone being there, but it’s when she goes out to a bar or to an event, she notices the stares. People tell her, “I’m so proud you’re out here doing this.”

“To me, that seems kind of silly. What else would I be doing? Sitting at home doing absolutely nothing,” she said. “The only thing I really see from people is pity.”

Combs has recently acquired a manual wheelchair that she’s starting to use. Baron is teaching her the ins and outs and eventually how to master the art of the wheelie. The two laugh when she makes mistakes.

Baron still makes mistakes herself. She can be something of a klutz at times. Recently at an awards ceremony in Georgetown University, she found herself sprawled out on the ground in front of a line of shocked students, some with their arms reached out as if they tried to catch her. Laying near her wheelchair, she laughed, and it filled the surprised silence

Her friend, Michael Auprince, has had similar situations happen to him in the past. A center for the men’s wheelchair basketball team, Auprince, a sophomore majoring in English, is a long way from his home country of Australia.

“People who know me just laugh,” Auprince said. “I don’t usually fall over that much. A lot of people freak out when they see me fall, but once they realize, I’m laughing. They usually start laughing.”

Since he was a child, basketball and swimming have been his two passions. In 2012, he won bronze and gold in the London Paralympics before deciding to focus on basketball. Basketball had always been a social game to him, a way to blow off steam and play with his friends, but after London, he began to take it more seriously. He joined the Australia team and competed in the Under-23 World Wheelchair Basketball Competition in Turkey where they won bronze. Auprince was one of the last players cut from the team that went to Rio.

“That hurts, but it makes me a little pissed off and wanting to be better,” he said.

Basketball was what brought Auprince to the University. Three of his former teammates suggested he come to the United States to play. Born with a congenital birth defect, Auprince spent the first nine years of his life with his left leg in a supportive cast. He had to wear a high heel shoe because his left leg was shorter than his right, which caused severe back problems.

At nine and half, he decided to have his leg amputated after watching a movie, “Reach For The Skies,” in which a World War 2 fighter pilot loses both his legs and relearns how to fly.

“It was the best decision of my life,” he said, his hand instinctively going to his back that hurts him still, 14 years later.

Because it was a clean amputation, it only took him two days to learn how to walk. Walking with the assistance of a prosthetic felt a lot like trying to walk on a stack of paint buckets, but he’s adjusted to it over the years.

As a child, he would come home crying because he was always in a game of tag and couldn’t ever catch the other children. Swimming was a release for him. He didn’t need his leg to do it. He could use his arms. As he got older and his friends would tryout for cross country or go running, he’d be in the gym doing push ups.

And that made him who he’s become today. Even now, the ghost of his leg persists, never faded by the passage of time. Every two to three months, he feels the weirdest sensation of pins and needles, a phantom leg that he can feel and move.

“I can feel my toes, and when I try to wiggle my toes, it makes it worse,” he said.

Auprince said if he wore pants then no one would even know about his disability, but he hates pants. For Baron, being in a wheelchair has become a source of conversation. She could either put on headphones and sunglasses and ignore the world or she could choose to embrace it.

“You get used to it,” Baron said. “I used to be super self conscious when I was little. I’d just try to hide from people. I didn’t want people to look at me, but now, I embrace it. This is the best part about me. This is me, and it brought me tennis. It brought me to Rio. It brought me to the President.”