As the 2022-23 NBA season tipped off, most fans had their eyes on the court as the Suns overcame a 22-point deficit to start the year with a win. For Rachel Hargis, her sights were on the integrated open captioning system inside Footprint Center that inscribes public addresses throughout the game. As the Disability Services Manager, Hargis actively develops and enhances accessibility efforts for fans and colleagues to foster a comfortable and enjoyable experience. While October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Hargis’ work is 365 days a year.
However, she never expected this would be her life. It never crossed her mind.
“I never considered accommodations or disability before I became physically disabled.”
Growing up, she played basketball, volleyball and was on track for a softball scholarship.
“And then it all stopped.”
“I had 25 back surgeries in five years, having to withdraw from every semester of college that I was in, I missed 117 of 129 days of my senior year of high school.”
Born with a rare form of Spina Bifida, called Lipomyelomeningocele, Hargis tried her best to maintain her activity and continue furthering her education. She overcame the procedures, recovering through rigorous physical therapy that consumed a dozen hours each week alongside full-time school.
In 2013, she entered Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan but the vastness of a collegiate campus was physically and mentally taxing.
“I was walking using loftstrands, otherwise known as forearm crutches, and it was exhausting. I couldn't do a lot beyond that, I couldn't hang out after classes, I couldn't go to lunch with my friends, because I hardly had enough energy to park my car, get to class, get back to my car and drive home before I'm asleep.”
“While my grades were fantastic, I was struggling personally, because it felt like I was secluded,” she added.
The faculty at the college were a rare bright spot.
“I would not be here without the professors in the sociology department at Oakland University. They were everything to me. They got me into my master's program. They funded my trips to conferences as an undergraduate and allowed me to be great.”
But her professors and mentors noticed she was struggling.
Toward the end of her first semester, she became ill as her physical health deteriorated.
“Before I became ill, I was ‘abled enough’ is how I like to describe it.”
Four months of tests and trips in and out of the hospital left her legs atrophied and her body weak, creating risk for the continued use of crutches.
Hargis returned to the university in the fall for her sophomore semester en-wheeled, donning a hot pink wheelchair. Her experience at school drastically changed, and not all for the better.
“People that I interact with daily didn't want to talk to me. They would make weird comments like ‘well you're too pretty to be disabled’ or ‘you're too smart to be disabled.’”
Disability Services at the school put Hargis through the ringer for essential support, and these challenges became the genesis for her work today.
She created the Accessibility Committee at Oakland University and gathered support to champion disability benefits and thwart ableism.
“Think of ableism as the systematic discrimination of disabilities. An example would be when designing an office or building, not considering where elevators should be placed, where automatic door openers should be placed, and do they have the appropriate amount of pounds per pressure to open and close? That is one very small facet to consider.”
Microaggressions would continue in Hargis' life as she pursued a master's degree at Florida Atlantic University. These experiences manifested through a lack of ADA compliance, failure to incorporate or provide accommodations and social prejudices. There was an assumption that disabled people required fixing or that their disability defined them.
Today, Hargis is doing something about it.
“I never want others to feel the way I felt.”
Upon graduation, she built on her foundation and paid it forward.
“That's why I took the position at the University of Arizona and their disability resource center as an access consultant, and then moved to the University of Michigan. But I realized that I didn't want to continue to advocate for myself, because it just gets too personal.”
“Instead, I kind of practice trickle-down accommodations. I advocate for other people so that eventually I don't actually have to advocate for myself.”
Since joining Suns Legacy Partners in the spring of 2022, Hargis is most proud of Launching a Sensory Room in partnership with KultureCity, executing an ADA Celebration game held on July 28th during a Phoenix Mercury game, and advocating for more inclusive job postings.
With the help of Dylan, her trusted service dog, the dynamic duo is elevating the accessibility for all who enter Footprint Center. Her words of advice are straightforward:
“It would be great for everyone to hold the mental weight of accessibility, it shouldn’t always be the disabled person saying, ‘this isn’t accessible.’ Disability is something that can impact you, at any point in your life. Any race, any gender, it can be temporary or permanent so it’s important that non-disabled people are helping to raise the question about what is accessible and needed by people everyone.”
When she’s not advocating, Hargis can be found spending time with her friends, playing sports, reading, watching movies and relaxing from the thrills and excitement of sports – all with Dylan by her side.