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How disability awareness, advocacy became a mission for ASU grad

ASU grad Garrett Tanner next to a sign that reads "Accessibility Coalition."

Garrett Tanner, '23 BS in digital and integrated marketing communications, outside the office for the Accessibility Coalition, an organization he helped co-found at ASU, in the Student Pavilion. Photo courtesy Jr De Chavez

December 14, 2023

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

The map of life is not always linear. For W. P. Carey School of Business graduate Garrett Tanner, life's journey led him through a multitude of peaks and valleys.

Tanner was born in New Jersey in 1987, but the now 36-year-old relocated to the Southwest in his early childhood, residing in Arizona since the second grade.

“I’d call it home. I’m a desert rat; I love it,” Tanner said.

After high school, Tanner attended Mesa Community College before transferring to Arizona State University, where he majored in digital and integrated marketing communications. During his time at ASU, he became one of the founding members of the Accessibility Coalition — one of eight student-led, cultural/identity-based coalitions, and ASU’s first for the disability community.

Outside of being a founding member, Tanner also held the positions of director of marketing, co-president and president throughout his tenure.

“It’s like a legacy, leaving something behind,” he said of the coalition. “I’m super proud that it has to do with something outside of me and something ... I had a tough time embracing, because I came into disability; I wasn’t always disabled.”

When Tanner was in high school, he helped take care of his late grandfather, who was a paralyzed quadriplegic after breaking his neck in an automobile accident. Four months after his grandfather’s passing, Tanner also broke his neck, in a gymnastics accident that left him paralyzed at the age of 20.

Tanner had difficulty adjusting to his condition and, ultimately, his new life.

“For a long while, I didn’t embrace my disability,” he said. “I was in a manual wheelchair pushing myself around because I thought it made me look less disabled or like I was more capable even though being in that wheelchair made me less independent and tired at the end of the day.”

That said, over time and after taking a the course Philosophy of Mind at ASU, Tanner learned to not only accept his disability, but also to use his passion for marketing to speak out and advocate for others like him.

“I (wanted) a cool job at a marketing place or advertising agency,” Tanner said. “But now, I'm realizing it could be cool with digital marketing because a lot of companies are not inclusive with their marketing or they're not accessible with their product ... (so I could) maybe work with companies on being more accessible.”

That ambition was reflected in his work with the Accessibility Coalition, which won a Pitchfork Award in the spring of 2022 for its continued advocacy and commitment to combating ableism, stigma and discrimination faced by students with physical, sensory or mental disabilities within the ASU community and beyond.

The Accessibility Coalition “puts people in positions they've not been in,” Tanner said. “I really like that idea that we have given disabled students not only a place, but positioning on campus to have their voices heard.”

Read on to learn more about Tanner's journey.

Editor's note: Responses may have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My degree is in digital marketing, and I half-pursued a minor in disability studies. My “aha” moment was realizing that a company or organization’s marketing could be a lot more inclusive and accessible towards the disability community — whether that be instilling disability advocacy and rights or adding an additional accessibility layer to an existing framework, it is possible and necessary moving forward to include all. … Disability will no longer be the afterthought or caboose of the diversity train.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I took a course on disrupting disability and discourse my junior year and gained an entirely new perspective on the disability community and how I perceived myself within it. I learned of ableism, my own internal ableism and the injustices placed upon the disabled and how they prevailed, and how action is still needed and disabled voices should be heard from blueprint to finish.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: After completing two years at Mesa Community College, ASU was the best fit for pursuing my major. I liked the atmosphere when visiting, and it’s accessible and easy to attend by light rail.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I’m not sure if one single professor at ASU taught me the most important lesson, but rather the cohesion and efforts of all of them played into my journey and tapped into my talents, which allowed me to learn many lessons along the way and adjust accordingly.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Show up. This advice (extends beyond) the classroom — yes, go to class, but beyond that, tour the campus and see where you can get involved, and actually show up. Your presence is needed, valued and integral to the conversations, experiences and perspectives of your fellow peers and newfound friendships, partnerships and allyships. Show up where and when it’s uncomfortable. Show up for just the beginning, maybe catch the middle or barely make the end, but try. Show up for a friend. Show up to the event or responsibility. Always show up and show your best support, gratitude, respect, grit, loyalty, love, pride… you always have something to show, so show up!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I for sure have more than one favorite spot on campus, but I would say my ultimate spot is the Student Pavilion, more specifically the Accessibility Coalition office on the second floor. I am proud to have been working on the Accessibility Coalition since the beginning and establishing a space on campus for disabled students to take on leadership positions. The office is amongst all the other CoC offices, USG and PAB — so there’s always a buzz of collaboration in the air. You’re bound to run into a familiar, friendly face, like Olivia, the building manager, or “Mama G,” our beloved maintenance lady who treats and loves the students like her own; she helps fill (and keep) the love cup full at the Student Pavilion. She is a bright light to my days.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m not too far planned out, but excited to see what opportunities arise and come my way post-graduation and beyond with the education and experiences I’ve gained here at ASU.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I know $40 million isn’t enough to stop world hunger or give housing to all, so I would target and tackle a rare disease called Epidermolysis Bullosa, or EB, to bring about a cure or some form of relief. I learned of a boy long ago named Garrett Spaulding and saw him champion through his days with this cruel disease requiring daily, intrusive bandage changes. Due to the absence of a protein that binds our skin's layers, this horrible condition renders even the gentlest touch or friction a catalyst for painful blistering and skin deterioration. His story tore my heart but opened a pathway of compassion that exceeds my circumstances, and to see his life’s grapple taken with incredible grit and a grin has humbled me and many others.

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