Running down the dream

Dana Zimmerman

Dana Zimmerman, far left, competed in the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, in 2000.

Dana Zimmerman heard fans cheering as he rounded the track in the 2000 Summer Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia. He looked up at the JumboTron mounted high in the stadium and could see himself running. He was well into his stride. He and two others were about 50 meters ahead of the pack.

“In my head I was saying ‘believe, believe, believe — There is nothing that can prevent you. Go for it…,’” recalls Zimmerman.

That inner drive led Zimmerman to earn a silver medal in the 1,500 meter race in the international competition. That drive also allowed the young man with Cerebral Palsy to never let his disability stand in the way of his dreams.

He competed in two Paralympic Games in 1996 and 2000 despite the condition, which limited motor skills on his right side. Although a learning disability affected his ability to read and write and caused him to be placed in special education classes, Zimmerman graduated high school and pursued a master’s degree. He earned his bachelor’s at UW-Platteville and his master’s at UW-L in physical education with a concentration in adapted physical education in spring 2011.

“I didn’t know how I would keep up with the course work,” says Zimmerman regarding the master’s program. “I hit it full force and said a few prayers.”

Zimmerman succeeded with flying colors. His master’s program G.P.A. was 3.7. As part of his master’s degree requirements, he worked with children with physical disabilities.

“He used his disability as a strength — as a way to break down barriers so he could interact well with other people whether faculty members, fellow students or the kids that he taught,” says Manny Felix, UW-L assistant professor of adapted physical education.

Zimmerman says he draws from his personal experience being bullied as a child — not only by other kids. He recalls having trouble understanding some reading and writing concepts in a middle school special education class. “What are you, retarded?” the teacher asked. Zimmerman recalls the room erupting with laughter.

“I think that motivated him — He is very encouraging as a teacher because he knows what it’s like to have a teacher who is not like that,” says Ramsey Weyenberg, a fellow graduate of UW-L’s master’s program.

Classmates and professors say Zimmerman also used his experience and achievements to motivate fellow students in the master’s program.

“He looks on the bright side of life even if he has a bad experience… to him it’s not. He considers it a learning experience,” says Steph Groff, a fellow graduate student in the program.

Zimmerman breaks down the stereotypes about people with disabilities, says Garth Tymeson, UW-L professor of adapted physical education. Zimmerman would speak to future teachers in some of Tymeson’s adapted physical education classes.

“It was eye-opening for people who don’t have experience working with people with disabilities to listen to a well-spoken, young man with a disability who was in college,” explaines Tymeson.

Zimmerman was hired in August as a full-time teacher of physical education and adapted physical education in the River Falls School District.

“To be in a professional field, I feel like I’m breaking the mold,” says Zimmerman. “Basically I went from me being in special education to earning a master’s degree in it, which is a dream in and of itself.”

October is Disability Awareness Month. Check out how the university is becoming more accessible to people with disabilities.

UW-L’s two new buildings, which opened in August have a variety of features that make them more accessible to people with disabilities.

Eagle Hall, residence hall

  • Elevator serves all floors and is ADA compliant
  • Exterior building entrances have power-assist doors
  • Corridors and door openings are sized to be ADA compliant
  • The first floor is level with the ground; No steps are used to enter the building
  • Multiple, ADA compliant living units on all floors
  • Way-finding signage is ADA compliant

Centennial Hall, academic building

  • Elevator serves all floors and is ADA compliant
  • Exterior building entrances have power-assist doors
  • Corridors and door openings are sized to be ADA compliant
  • The first floor is level with the ground; No steps are used to enter the building
  • Classrooms and lecture halls are ADA compliant and completely ramped for wheelchair accessibility throughout the room
  • Classrooms have assisted listening devices
  • Work counters are elevated to accommodate someone in a wheelchair
  • All sinks in bathrooms and departments are ADA compliant fixtures, providing room to roll up in a wheelchair and hands-free operation
  • All way-finding signage is also in Braille
  • Building stairwells have areas of risk assistance for those who can’t use stairs in an emergency

Featured in the Winter 2011-12 Magazine