Wheelchair, assistant, good to go
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Despite a rare congenital disorder, Verena Eder can communicate with voice, pen and keyboard and get around with her electric wheelchair. For everything else, she needs assistance. Naturally, she has managed to live in Brazil and Spain, balance family in Passau and attend LMU in Munich.
At age 23, Ms Eder looks back on the past two decades as a grand adventure. Born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, a disorder where any number of a body’s major joints can be malformed causing a limited range of movement, Verena’s journeys began at the age of two heading to Seattle, Washington for surgeries by specialists and for annual checkups. Over the years, America’s west coast has become Verena’s second home, but she was never content with so few as only two.
"I wasn't unlucky at all. I did what I wanted to do."
With parents who never treated her as unusual, Verena and her three siblings, including a twin brother, considered it normal that she could not do the same things. Nevertheless, as the family grew up, organizing things had to evolve as well: Who will drive Verena into the city? Who will stay home with her? How do we manage this family holiday?
The freedom provided to her by an electric wheelchair was a tremendous breakthrough for her when she started elementary school, and having an around-the-clock personal assistant became key as she grew older. Having such an assistant is what made attending LMU a real possibility.
Enrolled in LMU’s Communications Science course, Verena knew that she wanted to participate in an exchange at some point, and in her third semester, a six-month internship in Brazil presented itself. Her father was going there for work and Verena was intent on taking advantage of the opportunity to be able to work abroad and have the experienced support she required. She would not be bringing a personal assistant, but her father’s household would be able to provide for her.
As an international reporter for the journal Bistumsblatt Passau, Verena sent in regular coverage of the street life of children in Brazil’s favellas (shanty towns) as well as pieces on cultural insight. Getting around with the wheelchair was not as difficult as she had expected, despite the rougher terrain. The breakdowns were always mechanical, not electronic, so as the joystick, footrest, screws and wheels fell apart, they were fixed by a local cabinet maker. Also unexpected was the overwhelming friendliness of the Brazilians she encountered.
"I think I caught the travel bug in the US when I was two."
“That time was really amazing for me,” says Verena. “The openness of the street children, the lovely nature of the people there impacted me emotionally. But I think I also gave something back. For the street boys who were normally aggressive, who had problems with drugs, who were victims, who needed help – in dealing with me the tables were turned. It was me who needed the help and they who could provide it. I still carry with me all the experiences I made there.”
After three semesters back in Munich, the itch to go abroad again returned. Since Verena had already done an internship, this time she would do an exchange. She believed that learning Spanish wouldn’t be too difficult since she’d already learnt Portuguese in Brazil, so Verena made arrangements to do an ERASMUS exchange in Barcelona.
She was able to organize personal assistance and finances, without which the exchange would not have been possible, found a wheelchair accessible flat and found a roommate. A private tour through the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya was provided unexpectedly by a wheelchair bound professor. UIC turned out to be completely wheelchair accessible.
Verena feels she grew a lot during those seven months, becoming more openminded, more extroverted and, even more important, she learned to manage situations without her family’s help.
Handing in her bachelor thesis at LMU a few days ago, Verena’s next step will be her Masters. After that, she is not sure since she hasn’t yet decided on a career. But she does dream of the next step towards independence: “I would really love to get a converted car and a driver’s license.”
As one who says she’s not unlucky but just goes out and gets what she wants, there is little doubt she’ll be behind a wheel soon.