One Millennial Working Hard To Overcome His Generation's Stereotypes

May 7, 2014

Twentysomethings get a bad rap these days. You know the stereotypes: heads buried in their smartphone, sleeping in their parents' basement, too apathetic to care about anything — especially getting involved in politics.

But twentysomething Bryan Williamson is working hard to overcome his generation's reputation. He's doing something that many millennials do: affecting political change in his own unique way.

Fighting For A Cause

I first met Williamson at the Oregon state Capitol. He was advocating for his favorite cause the old-fashioned way: sitting in front of lawmakers.

Williamson was there to ask for money — millions of dollars to upgrade wheelchair ramps, install elevators and take care of the other barriers to access on public university campuses around Oregon. He had about four minutes to make his case in front of some of the most powerful lawmakers in the building.

This was Williamson's first time in front of a legislative panel. They turned him down. So he decided to take another route and try something that a lot of millennials do — tackle the issue hands-on. In this case, his hands are on a wheelchair that I'm sitting on.

I don't normally use a wheelchair, but that's the point of this demonstration on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis. It's to put me in the seat of disabled OSU students who have to navigate the sprawling campus.

Williamson leads tours every Friday. He points me in the direction of the library. It's up a bit of an incline.

"You're going to look at this and go, 'This is going to be rather difficult,'" he said.

I agree with that.

"We have Board of Trustees members out here, we get faculty members out here, students, and they go, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe that there's people that do this every single day,"’ he said.

Plenty Of Obstacles

Bryan Williamson says some wheelchair ramps are secluded and poorly lit, such as this one at Strand Agricultural Hall.
Bryan Williamson says some wheelchair ramps are secluded and poorly lit, such as this one at Strand Agricultural Hall.
Credit Chris Lehman

Hills aren't the only thing in the way of someone in a wheelchair at OSU. Williams takes me to buildings without elevators, with doors that won't open wide enough for me to squeeze through and ramps that are too steep.

A consulting firm hired by Oregon State found that despite the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, there are literally thousands of accessibility issues on the campus of Oregon State alone. And Williamson points out that I'm getting the chance to negotiate them on a sunny spring day.

"Think about doing this in either the rain or in snow or ice. In anything but optimal conditions, you can imagine this would be rather difficult."

Not all automatic doors on the OSU campus open completely, such as this one at Kidder Hall.
Not all automatic doors on the OSU campus open completely, such as this one at Kidder Hall.
Credit Chris Lehman

Williamson is 20 years old, clean-cut and slender. He isn't raising awareness of disability issues for his own sake. The political science major gets around just fine. He says he's had a passion for helping those less fortunate ever since he saw his younger sister get bullied.

"She had a really bad speech impediment as a little child, and because of that there was a lot of bullying and things like that that she had to go through and lot of kids picked on her at school and in the neighborhood and all that,” he said.

He says that opened his eyes to the everyday struggles faced by people with physical disabilities. And when he arrived at Oregon State, he jumped right in and tried to help.

Beating A Stereotype

And another thing he did when he got to college? He became a frat brother.

"I totally understand that whole Animal House stereotype or stigma around Greek life and everything about that," he said. "But actually I didn't join my fraternity for the party scene and whatnot."

Williamson's fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, isn't really known for its toga parties. On the contrary, it's through his fraternity that Williamson is planning a cross-country bike ride this summer to raise funds for disability causes.

"The stereotype I think can be beat," he said.

And when Oregon lawmakers return to the capitol next winter, Williamson plans to be back in front of them.

"We plan on hitting the gas, full throttle all the way through,” he said.

Williamson says he isn't going to let his age be a barrier to fighting for his favorite cause. Even if many of the lawmakers he's speaking to are old enough to be his grandparents.

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