Up For the Challenge

One UT student with a disability is fighting for accessibility for all.


UT-Austin sophomore Archer Hadley wants you to be uncomfortable. He wants you to challenge yourself. He wants you to experience life in another person’s shoes—his.

That’s why two years ago, Hadley, who was born with cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair since he was 5, created Archer’s Challenge, a nonprofit that raises money and awareness for people with disabilities by challenging others to spend the day in a wheelchair.

“Living life in a wheelchair is completely different from a ‘normal life,’” the 20-year-old says. “I want participants to gain knowledge in that perspective—that there is something vitally special, vitally challenging, and vitally different about being in a chair.”

Hadley developed the idea when he was a senior at Austin High School in 2014. He had arrived late to school one day and couldn’t find his aide. He was struggling to open the main door when rain started pouring down his back, rendering him helpless until another student finally noticed him. (Federal law does not require school doors to be automatic.)

Instead of feeling self-pity, Hadley channeled his frustrations into Archer’s Challenge. Students could donate $20 to task each other with being in a wheelchair for a day. That year, Hadley raised more than $112,000, which was used to install electronic doors in five Austin high schools.

When we meet in October, Hadley is getting ready for his first weeklong, citywide event. People across Austin at UT, in the local media, and on the city council have agreed to spend the day in a wheelchair. He says he wakes up nearly every day in shock over what God—who he says is the most important figure in his life—has done for him.

“I didn’t anticipate the catapulting that God has done to this movement,” he says. “I didn’t expect him to use it in this way to amplify me. It’s just a complete and utter blessing.”

On UT’s assigned day, Hadley provides 80 wheelchairs for participants, donated by different medical companies, and help from student organizations like the Texas Wranglers and Absolute Texas. President Greg Fenves comes out to the West Mall in support of Hadley. He says Archer’s Challenge is a great way to educate students on issues surrounding accessibility.

“We want the campus to be open and accessible for all students,” Fenves says. “And for every student at UT to get an education and be successful, and that includes students with limited mobility.”

Though UT’s campus adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for ramps, doors, and buildings, getting around still isn’t easy. Hadley has an around-the-clock provider, a young man named Ryan Mueller, who travels with him to all his classes, along with a service dog named Pepe.

“We work really well as a team,” Hadley says. “We bounce off of each other. I’m really lucky to have them.”

Hadley’s government professor Sean Theriault says he now understands how difficult it is to navigate campus from a wheelchair. During Archer’s Challenge, it took him twice as long to reach his destinations. He couldn’t travel any of his regular routes, could barely open his office door, and even arrived late to class.

“There were lots of times throughout my day that I just would laugh and shake my head because that’s all I could do,” Theriault says.

The week’s participants include staff from the office of Gov. Greg Abbott, BBA ’81, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, and members of the city council, like Mayor Steve Adler, JD ’82, who declared the week “Archer’s Week.” AISD students and faculty, 70 partners at Austin H-E-B stores, and 70 outfitters at Cabela’s also took the challenge. The funds are being donated to the Rosedale School in Austin, which caters to children with severe special needs. Principal Elizabeth Dickey, BA ’94, says the money raised will help provide two additional handicap-accessible entrances to the school and improve its outdoor area and playground.

“Shifting our perspective is so important and there are so few chances to experience someone else’s way of life,” Dickey says. “That’s why I think [Archer’s Challenge] is so powerful.”

As excited as Hadley was for the Archer’s Challenge when we spoke, he was also looking forward to returning to his regular routine. In his free time, the proud Eagle Scout tells me he does anything a normal college student does, like watch Netflix, go to the movies, eat out, and go to the gym. He’s also an avid sports fan and has been a Longhorn from birth.

Although he’s not sure where Archer’s Challenge will take him, Hadley hopes to work in public service one day. He’s already a motivational speaker at schools across the country, he lobbies every year in Washington, D.C. to improve health care for people with disabilities, and he serves on Gov. Abbott’s People With Disabilities Committee.

“I can imagine myself becoming governor—but definitely not president,” he says, laughing. “Actually, maybe you’ll quote me on that and see me running for president in 20 years. Who knows? It’s wherever God leads me.”

Photo by Anna Donlan 

 

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