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One Millennial Works Hard To Overcome His Generation's Stereotypes

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

Twenty-somethings 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. Today we meet a Northwest twenty-something who's working hard to overcome his generation's reputation. He's doing something that many millennials do...effecting political change in HIS own unique way.

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

Bryan Williamson: "My name is Bryan Williamson and I'm a student at Oregon State University…"

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. His audience? Some of the most powerful lawmakers in the building.

Bryan Williamson: "On most of our campuses, accessibility means much more than…"

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 in.

Bryan Williamson: "Don't lean back in this chair. Okay. Don't lean back, we don't have any…"

I'm on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis. I don't normally use a wheelchair, but that's the point of this demonstration. 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.

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

Bryan Williamson: "You're going to look at this and go this is going to be rather difficult.

Chris Lehman: "Yes, I agree with that."

Bryan Williamson: "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."

Hills aren't the only thing in the way of someone in a wheelchair at OSU. Williams takes me to buildings without elevators. Doors that won't open wide enough for me to squeeze through. And ramps…like this one…that are too steep.

Bryan Williamson: "All right, now be careful as you go down this. I'll get behind you and make sure that you don't get too far out of control."

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.

Bryan Williamson: "This 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."

Williamson is 20-years-old…clean-cut, slender. He isn't raising awareness of disability issues for his own sake. The poli-sci 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.

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

Bryan Williamson: "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 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. Oh. And another thing he did when he got to college? He became a frat brother.

Bryan Williamson: "Yeah, I totally understand that whole Animal House stereotype or stigma around Greek life and everything about that. 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.

Bryan Williamson: "The stereotype I think can be beat."

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

Bryan Williamson: "We plan on hitting the gas, full throttle all the way through."

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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