Whether it’s used as an advocate for those with disabilities or to sing with a choir, University of Findlay alumna Tenesha Ulrich ’02, president of the Northwest Ohio Chapter of United Spinal Association, has a unique voice, and she’s not afraid to use it for anyone who might need it.
Ulrich recently returned to UF’s campus to lend her voice and help present “Media Coverage for People with Disabilities,” a forum discussing how those with various disabilities are, and more importantly, should be, represented in the media. It’s a topic that Ulrich said might be an uncomfortable one for those with little to no experience in it, and that’s why she and her colleagues and friends came up with the idea for the presentation. “Our goal is to create a safe space for people to learn and to ask questions,” she said. “Any time you can get people talking, you have to figure you’re going to reach someone.”
Back in the early part of the 21st century, Ulrich was a busy student in her last year at UF, involved with a loaded class schedule, completing the practicums required at the time, working as a waitress, and holding down another part-time job in the engineering department at a television station in Toledo. She was majoring in broadcast telecommunications, minoring in writing, and enjoying all that college life had to offer. She loved to tell stories, sing, and reap the benefits of all things creative. “I really enjoyed UF so much,” she said. “It felt intimate and there were so many opportunities.” Ulrich, who has loved to sing since she was little, even lent her voice to a musical at UF, and learned the art of “locking chords” while singing with a group.
Around three years after graduating from UF, an all-terrain vehicle accident left Ulrich with a spinal cord injury and consequent paralysis. It was obviously a life-changing occurrence, but to believe that it was an entirely negative one would be a mistake. Though the initial road was tough and she has had her fair share of challenges, Ulrich has created yet another opportunity for the direction of her life by becoming an advocate for those similarly affected. “I know many different people who have many different disabilities,” she said. “Some can’t use their hands; some their legs. Some can’t communicate very well; but, you know what? They’re all really smart, and we are all more similar to others than different. That’s part of why we do this: to show people how we are more alike than different, and how important it is to recognize that.”
As the president of the Northwest Ohio Chapter of United Spinal and with a continued interest in media, one of Ulrich’s many goals is advocating for fair representation and understanding of those with disabilities as represented by the media, thus the presentation at UF. Prior to presenting on campus, Tenesha and her colleagues participated in a zoom webinar discussing the lack of representation and the misrepresentation of disability in the media and how common it is. In it, The Ability Center of Greater Toledo and local advocates hosted a conversation with media outlets in hopes of discussing language, narrative and imagery of folks with disabilities, and educating people along the way. The discussion between several participants with various disabilities covered everything from language to identity to the access (or lack thereof) to facilities. After the video of the discussion was shown at UF, there was the opportunity for the people in attendance to ask questions. “That’s what it’s all about,” Ulrich said, “to try and get the info out there and create a safe space so people can talk about it and know that it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions. The people in the video are from a lot of different organizations and have a lot of different perspectives, so there was quite a bit of potential to learn new things.”
One of the more important things that Ulrich, who successfully advocated for the elevator in Egner Center for the Performing Arts on campus, wants people to know about herself and others who use wheelchairs is that language and terminology matters. “There was a story that a reporter did once, and she contacted me for my input,” she said. “It was about a wheelchair tennis group. They did a wonderfully empowering story, but in it, they used the word ‘wheelchair-bound.’ That’s a hot button word for me, because when I was in the hospital after my accident, I was in a bed for two months. When I got my wheelchair, that was my freedom. In my eyes, it was the opposite of being bound. So, it’s important how things are phrased.”
That’s what Ulrich and her friends in advocacy ask of all of us. Think of commonalities. Think of personalities and intelligence. Think of talents. Think of the voice that we all have in common; a voice that some, like Tenesha Ulrich, are exceptionally gifted at using for the greater good. “We just have to keep trying,” she said. “And if there’s something I can do, I’m going to do it. We can all make a difference if we just keep trying.”