By Sofiya Ballin
Krystan Lenhard, 29, can rattle off significant dates pertaining to disability rights in America with ease. From activist Justin Dart’s mission to unify people with disabilities as a minority group to individuals chaining themselves to buses in protest of inaccessibility, Lenhard shares her wealth of knowledge with anyone who will listen.
Her expertise comes from her experience.
Lenhard was born with Cerebral Palsy and, at 19, was misdiagnosed with anxiety and depression. For seven years she was on seven different psychotropic drugs.
“It was horrible, I kept doing the medication and going to therapy,” she said. “I kept doing what they were telling me to do and nothing was getting better.”
In 2009, at age 25, Lenhard was diagnosed – accurately this time – with dystonia. The neurological movement disorder left her in moments of temporary paralysis.
“My brain, instead of telling my body to relax, it tells it to tighten up in a ball,” she explained. “It literally makes every muscle in my body tighten up.”
Despite the challenges dystonia presented, Lenhard graduated this spring with a master of science in communication management from the Temple University School of Media and Communication. Along the way, she won the 2014 Emerging Women in Media Scholarship, the Loreen Arbus Foundation “Focus on Disability” Scholarship and the Joshua A. Winheld/Charlotte W.Newcome Endowment Scholarship.
Sterotypes on TV
When it came time to write her thesis, Lenhard knew she wanted to tackle the media’s portrayal of people with disabilities using the Sundance Channel reality show Push Girls as her case study. The show follows four women through their day-to-day challenges as women with disabilities.
Lenhard argued that they used stereotypes to frame disability and gender in her thesis titled, “Stereotypes in Reality Television: The Framing of Women with Disability in Sundance Channel’s Reality Show Push Girls.”
“You’re hit with both,” she said. “Sometimes you’re treated like a child, which is a gender stereotype, but you’re also treated like a child because you have a disability.”
Lenhard felt the way these women are portrayed in the show, which she said was obviously designed for empathy, was unwarranted.
“Everything was pitiful,” she explained. “The way that they got their disabilities; the way they talked about it.”
She also believes the show wasn’t a full representation of people with disabilities since none of the women were born with a disability.
Lenhard watched the show to identify examples of 11 different sterotypes, such as the “Supercrip,” who is an “individual with (dis)ability through great courage triumphs over their disability; mundane activities seen as heroic,” or the “Maladjusted,” who is “bitter and full of self-pity because he or she cannot handle the disability; needs insight and guidance from those without disabilities.” She found 354 instances of these stereotypes in only eight episodes of Push Girls.
Her advisor, Donnalyn Pompper, associate professor of strategic communication, helped Lenhard mold her thesis over meetings for tea in her office since last January.
“For a teacher-researcher you see a student that’s excited and they invite you to work with them. I can’t refuse that. I have to say yes,” said Pompper. “She has a finely tuned mechanism for understanding context and where people are coming from.”
Beth Haller, professor of journalism and graduate director of the communication management master’s program at Towson University in Maryland, was on Lenhard’s thesis committee as well.
“I’m really pleased she was doing this topic,” said Haller who wrote Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media. “I think that it’s really groundbreaking and I’m glad she covered it.”
Scholar and advocate
Lenhard’s experiences led her to become an advocate for people with disabilities. Some dystonic episodes increased her need for a wheelchair as transportation, making her realize how inaccessible the world could be.
“It was very frustrating,” Lenhard said. Instead of getting discouraged, she used her experience to fuel her involvement, including getting an internship with the American Association for People with Disabilities during her first year as a graduate student.
“We make up 10 percent of the world’s population,” she said. “The interesting thing about the disability minority group is that anybody can join at any moment. If you live long enough, odds are you’re going to become a person with a disability.”
Lenhard now plans to work in human resources to affect policy pertaining to disabilities, reasonable accommodations in the workplace and how to finance them. She also hopes to help correct flaws in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I have so much respect for her passion as an activist,” said Pompper. “She wants to make the world a better place for people with disabilities.”
As someone who has been told what she couldn’t do, Lenhard wants to enable others to see what they can do.
“I was told I would never go to college, I would end up in a group home, no one would ever love me, I’d never get a real job,” Lenhard said. “And if I ever got a job, it would be in a dark corner packing boxes of toothpaste.”
Instead she’s in pursuit of her second master’s in human resource management at Temple’s Fox School of Business. She aspires to author a book that highlights different people with disabilities who have become leaders.
“I see her making a mark in policy making in this country. I also suspect there may be a Ph.D. in Krystan’s future,” Pompper said.
Lenhard, however, is taking it one step at a time.
“I’m developing into a leader,” said Lenhard. “I have a lot of work to do.”