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 Closeup of Bryan Goodwin beside reflecting pool near Memorial Glade Bryan Goodwin, fifth-year legal studies major. (BAP photos)

Extraordinary people: Berkeley senior Bryan Goodwin rolls to his own drummer

– Back when UC Berkeley senior Bryan Goodwin was 8 and waiting for a bus, a driver was so busy looking at him that he rear-ended another car. Goodwin laughed then, and now 23, he lets out a satisfied chuckle at the memory. People have stared at him all his life, and while he long ago got used to it, that doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy some payback now and then.

"My attitude is, I'm going to do what I want in my time, and they can do what they want in their time," he shrugs. "If someone wants to spend their time looking at me, that's their choice."

 Bryan Goodwin in his wheelchair beside the reflecting pool at Memorial Glade
Goodwin in his wheelchair, which he can both raise and lower.

Goodwin attracts attention not only for the blond highlights in his brunet hair, or his stylishly tailored shirts and distressed jeans, but also because he is on the petite side and zips around in a red wheelchair with a cheeky sticker prominently displayed on its rear. He has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). Often called "brittle bone disease," OI is caused by a genetic defect that negatively affects the body's production of collagen, creating bones that are weaker than usual and fracture easily. People with OI are born with it, and birth usually results in their first set of broken bones.

Yet several of Goodwin's buddies don't even know what kind of disability he has. Andrea Payne, '04, a close friend who now lives in Milwaukee, says that for the first year she knew Goodwin, it didn't occur to her to ask. "I was always forgetting that he was disabled, because his personality distracts you from it," she says. "It would only come up when he wanted to come over and visit, because I couldn't manage to find a place to live in Berkeley that was wheelchair accessible."

Sticks and stones

Goodwin is unusual among those with OI, as his mother also has it. Childbirth would have severely harmed or even killed her, so he was delivered by C-section. Still, the newborn infant had multiple fractures.

By age 3, Goodwin was driving a wheelchair, at least outside the house. Inside, he scooted around using his arms and continued to break bones, which in some cases healed slightly crooked. As someone with second-generation OI, he is not nearly as physically strong as his mother, who was able to lift him and his able-bodied younger sister when they were children. She can drive, using a car with assistive technology; Goodwin cannot, and depends on public transportation to get around off campus. He'd like to learn to drive, but fears that the amount of technology he would need would be prohibitively expensive.

Having a mother who has OI and in a wheelchair meant, among other things, that "I didn't grow up feeling like I was weird or 'other,'" says Goodwin, who is instead extremely outgoing and sociable.

He's also very opinionated. "I love to debate. I'm an arguer," he says, explaining he prefers to play devil's advocate so as to force people to articulate their beliefs. "My seventh-grade history teacher said I'd argue with a Chinese lamppost if I had the opportunity."

 Bryan Goodwin closeup
'I just don't see how you can oppose gay marriage. Maybe it's because — I hate to admit it — I want that stereotypical 'white picket fence and 2.4 kids' existence myself.'
-Bryan Goodwin

Since he "leans right," he gets plenty of opportunity for spirited debate at Berkeley. "I have voted Republican," Goodwin volunteers, "but I consider myself an independent. I have some radical left-wing ideas and some radical right-wing ideas. Add them all up and average them, and I probably come out moderate."

The only argument he can't argue both sides of, he says, is gay marriage. Goodwin came out in his teens, and at Berkeley has lived in several co-ops, including Oscar Wilde, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents. "I just don't see how you can oppose gay marriage. Maybe it's because — I hate to admit it — I want that stereotypical 'white picket fence and 2.4 kids' existence myself," he explains.

Going a-broadening

Goodwin transferred to Berkeley from Monterey Peninsula College (MPC), which his mother had also attended. He would have liked to have started at Berkeley, but he was already a senior in high school when he visited campus and realized it was where he wanted to go. Alas, at that time his GPA was a 2.5. "I can't get motivated by 'because you should' thinking; I have to want to," he explains ruefully. "So I made a mix of good and bad grades in high school."

At MPC, Goodwin worked full time in one of the campus offices to support himself and attended classes at night. He also lobbied to make the main restrooms in the student center ADA compliant. They had been inaccessible since when his mother attended school there 10 years earlier, and despite complaints and even accidents - Goodwin fell and broke his arm in one when visiting as a teenager - they remained so until he made it his personal mission. After several meetings with campus administrators, railings and other adaptations were added.

"That felt really great, to fight for something like that and get it done," Goodwin says.

Disability rights at Berkeley

 The Disability Rights Movement was born at Berkeley alongside its better-known Free Speech counterpart. Its seeds were planted when Ed Roberts (left) decided to attend the university in 1962. Roberts had contracted polio at age 14, and subsequently used a manual wheelchair by day and an iron lung at night. Amazingly in today's context, Roberts had had to fight for his high school diploma: he could not pass required driver's education and P.E. courses.

Upon his admission to Berkeley, Roberts was assigned to a room in the campus health facility, Cowell Hall. The next year, another student joined him, and by the end of the 1960s, a dozen students with disabilities were attending Berkeley, aided by attendants and motorized wheelchairs, and moving to apartments off campus. Roberts and his cohorts would go on to found the Center for Independent Living in the city of Berkeley; their work was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Now, the campus Disabled Students' Program serves more than 700 students (as of 2004-05), of whom 11% are mobility impaired, 3% are blind or visually impaired, and 2% are deaf or hard of hearing. (The remainder have learning disabilities or other functional impairments.) The program has grown into an internationally recognized model and has hosted hundreds of visitors who are interested in replicating its success.

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After two years, his grades were good enough to allow him to transfer from MPC to UC Berkeley. UC Berkeley, as the birthplace of the Disability Rights and the Independent Living movements (see sidebar), has been a whole different experience.

"Berkeley has changed my view of living with a disability. I go home now and realize my mother's kitchen is the most inaccessible place in the world!" he jokes. "She tells me, 'Bryan, it's an able-bodied world, and we have to live in it.' To which I say, 'That's true in the outside world, but in my home, I believe in putting the glasses down where I can reach them.' I can't understand why she doesn't."

Now a fifth-year senior, he's majoring in legal studies after flirting with history and linguistics. "I loved linguistics, but I'm bad at math and so wasn't doing very well," he explains. Studying abroad for a year in Manchester, the United Kingdom, and a semester-long leave of absence spent working have slowed his academic progress: he's hoping to finish by December 2006. After that, perhaps law school, where his debate avocation will come in handy.

While Goodwin minds a little that close friends like Payne have graduated before him, he doesn't regret having taken the detours he did. He relished living in England for the chance to travel. One morning, he woke up and thought, "I want to go to Paris today." And off he went, changing trains in London and traveling through the Chunnel. He arrived in Paris, alone, with no hotel reservations - and not speaking French - and managed to find a hotel near the train station. "I had a great time even though it rained the whole day and the Louvre was closed," he recalls triumphantly.

He's fortunate his wheelchair didn't short out, like it did on one occasion in London. Luckily, his sister was visiting and they were able to put the chair in a cab. (He says he has never been stranded, knocking on the wooden table for insurance.) The chair is electric and takes about 14 hours to charge when its battery is completely depleted; he needs to charge it at least six hours a day to keep it running.

Ever forgotten to charge it? Goodwin smiles and rolls his eyes. "Well, I have gone out and gotten drunk, then come home and passed out like people do, forgetting to charge my chair," he admits. For such occasions - and for when he's going on a car trip with friends - he has a manual chair that can be folded up and easily transported.

Although English public transportation, except the Underground, is more wheelchair-friendly than most of America, Goodwin rarely saw other people in wheelchairs during his year abroad. "In England, disabled people don't go out, which culturally was very weird for me," he admits. Few of his dormitory mates had ever known anyone with disabilities before. But Goodwin being Goodwin, "I just acted like me," he shrugs, and made friends quickly.

In Berkeley, Goodwin is a social motivator, he says, lining up jaunts to bars or clubs for both disabled and able-bodied friends. "Being social has never been an issue for me." It has, however, at times been a liabilty: Goodwin acknowledges he suffered from the "butterfly effect" when he first came to Berkeley, and still struggles with "balancing social stuff and keeping up with the academic side."

Financial pressures have required him to work throughout his education; he has a job in Berkeley's Classics department and occasionally moonlights as a telemarketer doing business surveys. Last summer, he was a counselor with the Cal Student Orientation (CalSO) program at Berkeley. "I loved that, showing students around, helping them get acclimated and figure out how everything worked," he says.

Judging from the exclamation-point-studded accolades on Goodwin's Facebook profile from his CalSO mentees, the job loved him back. "U were the KOOLEST calso counselor! I had so much fun and now I am even more excited in going to Berkeley!" writes a current first-year student.

One of the CalSO students last summer couldn't resist asking questions about the nature of Goodwin's disability - but chose an unfortunate way to go about it. "He said to me, "So what's wrong with you?" Goodwin recounts. "So of course I said, 'Nothing, what's wrong with you?' Things like that don't offend me, but I do answer back with something inappropriate so people realize how rude they're being. Basically, I'm always willing to answer questions if they're polite."

The politics of difference

Although Goodwin is used to the staring and the questions, his friends take some time adjusting. Payne recalls the trip the two of them took to San Francisco on BART when she abruptly realized how many people were unashamedly staring at him. Another time, a high-school-age kid stopped on the sidewalk and was pointing and laughing. "I almost got into a fight with him I was so angry," she says. But Goodwin was not grateful. "He didn't get mad at me, but he wasn't appreciative. He said, 'You have to ignore it. It's what it is; I'm used to it.'"

Even worse than the pointing in Payne's opinion are the looks she sometimes sees on people's faces. "When people open doors for him, I think that's great," she says. "But when people shake their heads like as if to say how does he wake up every morning, that really angers me. Having a disability is just one part of who Bryan is. It's not the end of the world."

Strangely, able-bodied people are not the only ones guilty of pigeonholing. Because Goodwin can live independently - without requiring the services of an attendant - another mobility-impaired student once informed him that "you don't count as disabled." Goodwin wasn't particularly bothered, figuring that "in any clique, the hierarchy is created by whatever the underlying factor is. So in the disabled clique, whoever has the most disability has the highest say, and someone like me, who can do pretty much whatever I want, is lower down."

Ultimately, Goodwin says, he's "just an ordinary guy, with ordinary experiences and beliefs." But almost as soon as the words are out, he takes them back. "OK, I'm not ordinary. What I mean is, I may be concentrated, but I am not intrinsically different."