Jessica Burkman

Annabelle Hanflig / Staff Writer  photo by Jordan Mondell

Jessica Burkman does not care for “inspiration porn.”

“People are like, ‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude,’ and I’m like, ‘My legs don’t work properly, so I would have to disagree with you,’” Burkman, a graduate student at Pitt, said.

Inspiration porn isn’t exactly what you’re thinking — it refers to able-bodied people seeking inspiration from people who have disabilities.

“It’s basically when the able-bodied, non-disabled community uses a picture of a little kid with two prosthetic legs and says, ‘If this kid can be happy, then what’s your excuse?’” Burkman said.

Burkman, who is currently working on a device to help people get in and out of wheelchairs with ease, has spent her adult life and academic career working to help people with disabilities. She inspires through her career and her advocacy, not her cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that weakens one’s movement control as a result of damage to the developing brain.

Cerebral palsy affects Burkman’s balance and upper and lower limb function, so she uses an electric wheelchair.

“[People] see the wheelchair and automatically think I’m stupid,” she said. “It’s always fun to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing this, and this and this,’ and they’re so shocked.”

To elaborate on “this” — the Florida State University graduate and North Carolina native is currently working on her master’s in rehabilitation sciences at Pitt while training to become a certified coordinator of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and interning at the UPMC Disability Resource Center.

Burkman is also helping to construct a device called the StrongArm at Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Lab in Bakery Square, where she works 25 to 30 hours per week as a member of a team that is tasked with constructing, programming and testing the specialized device.

The apparatus would attach to the back of any electric-powered wheelchair via a mounting mechanism, greatly decreasing the difficulty wheelchair users and their caregivers face in moving the user from their chair to a bed or shower. The device is still in the prototype stage, and Burkman said it will be complete in two to three years.

“I knew from a young age I wanted to design wheelchairs and other assistive devices because I used them all the time, so who better [to do it],” she said.

Living on her own has highlighted the everyday challenges people with disabilities still encounter. She’s seen businesses that are impossible for her to enter and busses that have no way of getting her on board. As she’s gotten older and more independent, Burkman has realized what little infrastructure exists to accommodate her.

Part of her internship at the DRC involves tracking hospitals that have violated the ADA, which “ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities and transportation.”

Burkman can recall detailed descriptions of hearing-impaired patients being denied interpreters and a wealth of businesses refusing to install wheelchair-accessible ramps, usually for the sake of saving money.

Burkman credits the law with creating new opportunities for her and other people with disabilities but sees room for improvement every day in homes and public spaces.

“I’m affected by [The Americans With Disabilities Act]. I see [its lapses], so I can’t get away from it and pretend that it doesn’t exist or pretend it’s doing the job it’s supposed to be doing,” she said.

Detecting gaps in the law’s enforcement is more than a job to Burkman — it’s a necessity. It’s something she hopes to educate others about as a certified ADA coordinator.

“It’s harder for people with disabilities because even though we’re one of the large minority groups and anyone can become disabled, people tend to forget us in politics or any other discussion about minority groups, whether it’s race or sexuality,” she said.

Politics aside, Burkman wants to make the more fun areas of life more accessible to people with disabilities.

If Burkman could use her mechanical engineering degree for anything in the world, it would be to develop a water park that’s completely wheelchair-accessible.

It may be a “shoot for the stars, cloud nine” scenario, she said, but she’s determined. 

Growing up in a Floridian town nestled between Disney World and Universal Studios instilled Burkman with a love for amusement parks. She would go to water parks with her family, but could only enjoy the wave pool or the lazy river — the only two rides that didn’t have stairs.

“[The disabled community is] a small community to begin with, so we have to band together,” Burkman said. “There’s this problem. Nobody else is going to fix it for me…The world’s not going to change for me, so I might as well try and change the world.”