UNL student puts disability aside to fulfill his dream

Story by Nate Poppe, Reid Hunsaker, Nam Tran, Josh Skluzacek for NewsNetNebraska

Zach Gardner’s Story

“I would say the hardest part of my day would be just getting dressed in the morning,” said Zach Gardner, a senior mechanical engineering major. “Most people can throw something on in like two minutes, it’s not quite that easy.”

Gardner is one of the many students on campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) born with a physical disability. It makes things most other people do naturally, a bit more challenging for Gardner.

“I lack most of my arms, I have no thighs essentially and I have a limb deformity on my right leg so it’s a lot shorter on my left,” he said. Because of his disability, Gardner has to use an electronic wheelchair to get around campus.

Nearly one in five people have some sort of disability in the U.S. according to the United States Census Bureau. At UNL, the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) helps students with disabilities ensure their needs are being met and provides accommodations that will help them succeed.

When Gardner first arrived on campus, he had to make certain modifications to his dorm room. Things like a customized card key entrance to his room and fitting his room’s chest of drawers with handles so they could slide in and out.

Gardner’s daily campus destinations:

Services for Students with Disabilities

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Veva Cheney, Director of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at UNL, said accommodations also come in the form of extended time on tests, early class registration and sign language interpreters.

“Basically my whole entire work career has really been around people with disabilities,” she said. “It’s a big job because every disability is different.”

The office is always looking at ways to improve. “It’s always in the back of your mind,” Cheney said. “Am I doing enough for the student? Am I doing this right? Am I providing as much as I should because you don’t want to get into that situation where you’re not meeting their needs. That’s always a challenge,” she said.

“They always tell me, If you need anything, let us know and we’ll figure it out,” Gardner said. “I’m stubborn like that so I don’t ask for a lot in the first place but they’ve done a really good job.”

Cheney said numbers are on the rise at the SSD office. “It’s not quite as much as a stigma as it used to be now. There are still students who don’t want to identify but I think more and more parents and students feel like, if I’m eligible for this, I want to get as much as help as possible.”

See how Nebraska stacks up in disability assistance compared to other Big Ten schools:

Journey of Hope

One of many phenomenal individuals Nick met this summer on his Journey of Hope ride.

One of many friends Nick Murdakes met last summer on his “Journey of Hope” charity bike ride.

One UNL student who has dedicated part of his life to changing the way people look at disabilities is Nick Murdakes, a junior chemical engineering major. Murdakes spent most of last summer on a ten week coast-to-coast cycling trip called Journey of Hope for his Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. When he wasn’t on his bike, Murdakes and his fraternity brothers made friendship visits across the U.S. with dozens of individuals with disabilities.

What motivated Murdakes to take the 4,000 mile Journey of Hope:

Murdakes talked about how important it is to get past someone’s disability and accept them for who they are.

“They might walk funny, talk different, or they’re not fit. You have to look past those things,” Murdakes said. “We met some incredible people that once you get to know them, are amazing and always have smiles on their faces and you can’t help but smile when you’re around them because they have this pure joy and are just happy to be alive.”

Gardner will graduate in the Spring of 2016 and hopes to land an engineering job. While working on this story about Gardner, he traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for an interview with one engineering firm that’s interested in hiring him.

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