Nov 112008
Authors: Chelsea Cushing

Editor’s Note:

RETHiNKING DISABILITIES is the first offering from a Student Media collaboration that will bring you compelling, newsworthy stories about real issues at CSU and in Fort Collins. Student media journalists from The Rocky Mountain Collegian, the campus TV station CTV channel 11, the student-run radio station 90.5 KCSU-FM and College Avenue magazine will deliver these stories in a rich media environment on the Web as well as in print and broadcast.

To experience RETHiNKING DISABiLITIES on the Web through stories, photos, video and audio log on to

Expect the next collaborative Student Media story in early December.

This is the first in a three-part series that looks into the lives of disabled students on campus.

Rachel Knox-Stutsman sat timidly in her wheelchair, fidgeting, as several reporters hounded her with questions about her lifestyle.

The 22-year-old junior history major looked up from the ground and slowly began to describe how her life, accentuated by her debilitating cerebral palsy that confines her to the space between the arms of her wheelchair, has differed from that of most students.

Knox-Stutsman was born and raised in Fort Collins and has lived in the same house, one that her father built, for 13 years.

“He specifically designed this house to make things more accessible for me. I have grab bars to help me with transfers from my wheelchair to my bed, wider doors and lower counters in order to help me get around,” she said.

Knox-Stutsman’s cerebral palsy has confined her to her wheelchair since eighth grade (before that she had to use a walker to get around), invaded her legs with tumors and hampered her ability to do simple everyday tasks like grasping a fork to eat a meal.

The disease, which affects about 800,000 people in the U.S. according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, keeps certain parts of her brain in check, not allowing them to send the proper messages to the rest of her body. As a result, her increasingly deteriorated limbs extend from her tiny frame as she tells her story.

This, however, doesn’t keep her spirit from functioning.

Growing up, Knox-Stutsman played wheel chair sports at a camp every summer in Denver. They included sports that the average college student takes for granted: softball, rugby, tennis and adaptive cycling.

But it wasn’t all fun and games.

When she was in middle school, she was told she would never be able to write because of her disabilities.

“I had to fight to be in a normal classroom when I was younger,” Knox-Stutsman said. “There is a stereotype that people with disabilities can’t do what others can.”

Now though, as a fully capable student, she brings an optimistic view to her special situation.

“I really feel as though life isn’t really worth living unless you can fight and come out on top,” she said.

After she finished high school, where she wrote for her school’s newspaper, Knox-Stutsman enrolled in classes at the University of Northern Colorado. There she lived on campus and got around alone.

But during her second year there, doctors discovered tumors in her legs, and she had to move back to Fort Collins with her parents for surgery, which fended the tumors away for a bit. But now they’re back, and she is fighting them with medication.

“Things that people say I can’t do, I want to prove to them that I can,” Knox-Stutsman said.

She went on to write for the Collegian last year.

Despite the different struggles Knox-Stutsman has had in her life, she keeps a very positive outlook on things.

“One amazing thing about Rachel is that she actively works to keep a positive outlook on a thing that is often sad,” said Kathleen Ivy, a counselor with Resources for Disabled Students on campus.

Having taken a job at RDS, Knox-Stutsman answers phone calls, processes forms for alternative testing and schedules appointments, which provides assistance to the about 500 to 600 CSU students with disabilities.

Ivy said they are very lucky to have a passionate person like her working there.

“Rachel has many passions, including the recent election,” Ivy said.

“At the Obama rally on campus, there was a special section up front for students and citizens with disabilities. When the speech was over, Rachel got to shake Senator Obama’s hand, and she cried. It was a very touching moment.”

Knox-Stutsman said that despite the challenges she faces with her disease, she tries to keep stereotypes of people with disabilities far from her thoughts.

“Anybody who knows me knows that my disability isn’t something I focus on — its just there,” Knox-Stutsman said. “. People can view me however they want, and I will just prove them wrong.”

Staff writer Chelsea Cushing can be reached at

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