North Texas Daily

Non-traditional student finds inspiration from difficult places

Non-traditional student finds inspiration from difficult places

September 07
14:18 2015

Matt Payne | Senior Staff Writer

Graduate Student Council senator Darla Ray, 49, dreams of authoring a children’s book inspired by the obstacles she’s overcome.

“I’m Coco, and this is Hot Wheels,” Ray said, gesturing to her electric wheelchair. “I’m a kid at heart, but these kids at UNT have added 20 years to my life.”

Ray just started her career as a graduate student this semester studying rehabilitation counseling, with a focus on treatment for those who suffer from PTSD and anxiety disorders. She completed her associate’s degree at Tarrant County College before transferring to UNT to pursue her bachelor’s degree, but it wasn’t without complications.

Darla Ray refills what she calls her, "survival bag." On top of all the pills she needs to take daily, she must all inject herself with a chemo like medication.

Darla Ray refills what she calls her, “survival bag.” On top of all the pills she needs to take daily, she must all inject herself with a chemo-like medication. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Her collegiate career originally began in 1984 at TCC, but she left a year later, transferring to a military base in Alaska with her husband at the time. She would eventually divorce, move back to Ft. Worth and raise her two daughters on her own.

Ray was diagnosed with dermatomyositis and pulmonary fibrosis, a rare, degenerative lung disease affecting only 9 out of 1 million people.

The disease deteriorates joints over time, requiring periodic replacement surgeries.

“It’s changed my life. I’ve been climbing a glacier with ice skates on,” Ray said. “It’s been an adjustment not only for me, but for my daughters who both had to mature very quickly.”

One of Ray’s daughters, Whitney “Free” Smith, recently graduated from UNT and is currently working for Teach for America in Charlotte, North Carolina. Fashion merchandising sophomore Whitley Smith currently attends classes at UNT alongside her mother.

“Whenever she first propositioned going to UNT and staying on campus, I had one response: ‘duh,’” Smith said. “Whether it’s fixing her plates first at Christmas dinners, or giving up seats when I can stand, I’ve grown to see things in more selfless way.”

Darla Ray's day starts early as she leaves her College Inn dorm and heads to her job.

Darla Ray’s day starts early as she leaves her College Inn dorm and heads to her job.

Ray recalled flying to a conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Upon landing, she discovered her electric wheelchair had broken in the commute and scrambled to find accommodations.

“I had to make an insurance claim, get a new chair and rely on my daughter to try and find a cab who would take a wheelchair,” Ray said. “We found no cab, much less a cab driver who wasn’t extremely rude about it.”

At one point, Ray cried. At another, her daughter cried.

“Being so far from home, it was so difficult having to deal with the negativity from the cab drivers,” Smith said. “If more people actually knew my mom, they’d love her just like I do.”

Ray has discerned a prejudice toward people with disabilities over the years.

“I think saying somebody has a disability carries a negative stigma in this day and age,” Ray said. “I personally don’t go with the label of ‘disabled.’ Rather, I have ‘suggested limits.’”

Darla Ray is up before everyone at College Inn. In order to make it to fit all her treatments and medication into her schedule her alarm goes off at 5 AM.

Darla Ray is up before everyone at College Inn. In order to fit all her treatments and medication into her schedule, her alarm goes off at 5 AM. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

Biology sophomore Deanna Berendt has noticed similar cues. A resident assistant in Kerr Hall, she has two visually impaired students with whom she engages on a frequent basis.

“They are some of the most socially active students I’ve seen on my floor,” Berendt said. “It’s my job to make sure they’re treated in the same way as everybody else. Like they should be.”

Berendt said she’s noticed when the two students occasionally lose their bearing, people surrounding will impulsively try to guide them by seizing onto their arms.

“It’s startling for anybody to be grabbed by a complete stranger,” Berendt said. “I wish people were more conscious of such abrupt treatment.”

Ray tries to get motivated from her bad experiences. For her, inspiration comes out of two places: defying the odds of her disability and exceeding the expectations of others.

“Life is about choices,” Ray said. “You can choose to be angry. You can choose to be a victim, but you can also choose to be a victor.”

Use medication cutline from other medication photos

An inspirational poster and a whiteboard with Darla Ray’s goals hangs above Ray’s desk where she prepares her medication for the day. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

On a typical day, Ray wakes up several hours before her shifts at work and writes her goals on a whiteboard hanging on her wall. These goals can include anything: authoring a memoir, skydiving, living to be a centennial.

“I used to be very narrow-minded, but after knowing her wild, far-out goals, and seeing how far she’s come, I’ve been inspired to reach farther,” Smith said.

Due to attending UNT together, the two frequently see each other, but intentionally focus on their individual college careers. They live in separate dormitories on campus.

“I want her to enjoy her time in college. It’s an extremely special time for her,” Ray said. “I’m usually the one encouraging her to go out and do a crawl on Fry St. or something.”

In spite of the deliberate separation, the two maintain a powerful dynamic as mother and daughter.

“We spent 18 years living together. I think we’ve had enough of that,” Smith said. “We eat together. I’ll occasionally drop into her dorm room to say hello. We’re like best friends.”

How Ray has used her obstacles to her advantage has been a catalyst for her demeanor.

“Where I am now is because I’ve dared to dream big,” Ray said. “I’ve dared to dream about things that don’t make sense.”

Featured Image: Darla Ray is ready for her day, but she does not roll without her mean green sunglasses. Hannah Ridings | Senior Staff Photographer

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