Purdue senior reflects on how disability shaped her educational pursuits

Last updated: March 23, 2022

Purdue senior Grace Bowling was only 11 years old when her parents took her to Elliott Hall of Music to watch physicist Brian Greene speak about string theory.

Bowling sat huddled up in her chair with the hood of her sweatshirt cinched around her face. This was her way of coping with social situations since she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and severe anxiety. But by the end of the lecture, Bowling’s hood had come off. She was leaning forward in her seat, eyes like saucers, “watching Brian Greene as if he were God,” her mother recalls.

Purdue University senior Grace Bowling smiles for a picture near the beach during a family vacation.

“Seeing Brian Greene at Purdue, that captured my interest,” Bowling said. “I wanted to learn more about the universe and how it worked at its basic, fundamental levels. That was a turning point for me.”

Another turning point is happening right now. Now 19, Bowling will soon graduate from Purdue with Honors degrees in math and physics, plus a minor in anthropology. She also earned a spot in Purdue’s graduate program for physics, where she plans to study theoretical particle and high energy physics.

One reason it’s a turning point is because Bowling has had plenty of people doubt her. Some even said she would never be able to go to graduate school because of her disability. In addition to Asperger’s, Bowling has selective mutism, a severe form of anxiety that prevents her from being able to speak in many social situations. It’s why she was homeschooled by her mother until about age 12. But Bowling was a rapid learner, and soon excelled past the point of online high school lesson plans. Bowling’s mom, Shelly, recalls going to the local high school and asking if her daughter could take the high school honors geometry tests. The math teacher who wrote the tests nearly refused, saying it would be impossible for Bowling to pass. Then she aced them both. And at age 14—after being denied admission two years earlier because of her age—Bowling enrolled at Purdue.

She agreed to share her experience as part of Disability Awareness Month, which is in March, because she wants to help dispel misconceptions about disability. Bowling says people often make assumptions about who she is and what she can or can’t do in relation to her disability. Sometimes people talk over her or dismiss her, she adds. Because of her unique academic history, and because she has Asperger’s, she says people often compare her to stereotypical, fictional characters, like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” Such comparisons are harmful because they position disabled people as “inspirational,” or presume that disability must be compensated for through some extraordinary gift.

“I’m not like ‘The Good Doctor’ where I have equations just swirling around in my head doing a physics problem,” Bowling says. “Being disabled has changed the way I live my life and it has fundamentally shaped who I am – how could something you live with not? – but I don’t enjoy being disabled in any form or way. And I don’t have to make up for it by having some super abilities.”

Grace Bowling stands for a picture next to the Purdue University foundation campus monument.

Kara James, former assistant director of Purdue’s Disability Resource Center (DRC), worked closely with Bowling to ensure she had equitable learning and training experiences during her time at Purdue. She says her main work at the DRC was to help students fully access environments at Purdue. It’s the environment, rather than someone’s condition, that is disabling, James says.

“Yes, there are challenges with disability,” James says. “But those challenges are because the built environment isn’t inclusive. Our job is to identify barriers and minimize them—hopefully eliminate them—so that the learners have full access. In our work, we run into many types of barriers, and the hardest barriers to eliminate are often attitudinal barriers.”

As one example of attitudinal barriers Bowling has experienced, she says people sometimes assume that academic accommodations she receives through the DRC provide her with an unfair academic advantage. Testing accommodations can include modifications such as taking her exams in a reduced-distraction environment with extra time. Without these accommodations, however, Bowling would not be able to show what she knows because the stress of the default testing environment would be too great.

The same idea applies to Bowling using a language facilitator, which she has done since she started taking classes at Purdue. Her language facilitator serves as a translator of sorts, reiterating questions to Bowling and prompting her with a gentle tap on the arm or by saying her name so she can respond. This helps Bowling communicate with instructors during office hours, and with her student peers during group meetings.

“I’ve met with professors to ask for letters of recommendation, and people have shown concern about my ability to work in a group and communicate, but there have been many professors who have said, ‘You communicate,’” Bowling says. “They understand that my situation is unique. They may not give me a perfect score for communication, but they see that I can communicate and work on a team, collaborate, and contribute. I can communicate. It’s just different.”

Bowling says her instructors at Purdue have been understanding and supportive when providing accommodations. She recalled how nervous she was about taking COM114, which is a requirement for graduation. The question was not whether Bowling could give a speech, but how. The conversation between Bowling, her DRC access consultant, and the course instructor focused on how she could show her understanding of course concepts without fundamentally altering the essential learning outcomes of the course. Rather than speak her speech aloud, she was able to type her speech into PowerPoint and use the program’s text-to-speech feature. It was a minor adjustment, without which Bowling says she would not have been able to show that she could, in fact, plan, write, and deliver a presentation.

Grace Bowling (middle) studies with a group of her peers.

Accessibility in spaces, as well as within disciplinary fields more generally, is something associate professor Ian Lindsay in the Department of Anthropology has been thinking more about since meeting Bowling. Bowling took an early interest in Lindsay’s archaeology classes and applied to work with Lindsay on his heritage site monitoring research, which assesses changing conditions of historic sites using modern satellite imagery.

Roughly a year ago, about midway through Lindsay’s research, a long-simmering territorial conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and some of the sites Lindsay and Bowling had been monitoring came under threat by territorial war. Bowling helped analyze satellite images to see if the war had damaged any sites they were tracking, including cemeteries and monasteries from the 12th and 13th centuries that were coming under danger of being destroyed. The data Bowling helped analyze was used recently as evidence in the International Court of Justice at The Hague to try Azerbaijan for intentionally damaging Armenian heritage sites.

Lindsay notes that archaeology, in many ways, is a field-based discipline that often requires those within it to work intensively in groups. This type of environment may be prohibitive or undesirable for someone with anxiety or other disabilities.

“However, new technologies like satellite imagery analysis are opening up new channels for people who may not have the interest or ability to travel into the field or work in close quarters with groups of people for months at a time, but still can contribute to knowledge production about the past,” Lindsay says. “These sorts of remote sensing and geospatial tools seemed like they were well-suited to Grace because it allowed her to work remotely while still engaging in scientific practice. It really opened my eyes to all kinds of possibilities when archaeology is more accessible.”

As Bowling prepares to begin her next chapter at Purdue as a graduate student, she says she hopes she’s been able to change the way some people view disability. More specifically, she hopes people will realize what’s possible when you work alongside people with disabilities, rather than in opposition to them.

“I think the people at Purdue who know me and who have supported me understand how hard I’ve worked to get here,” she says. “I’ve come a long way from where I started. I got accepted to Purdue’s graduate program for physics against every single odd, despite being a young, disabled female in a STEM field. It has taken a lot of work academically, and that’s the part I’m most proud of.”

She also feels thankful. One of the main reasons she’s been able to be successful at Purdue, she says, is because of support she gained from a network faculty, staff, academic advisors, the DRC, administrators, and student peers along the way.

“I have been incredibly fortunate to have met people who have been instrumental in my success,” she says. “I just want everyone to know how grateful I am and what an impact they have made. None of this would have been possible without everyone’s support.”

Writer: Andrea Mattingly, communications director for Student Success Programs, andrea@purdue.edu

Sources: Grace Bowling, Purdue senior studying math and physics, gbowling@purdue.edu

Kara James, disability and accommodations resource specialist at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science, james.kara@mayo.edu

Ian Lindsay, Purdue associate professor of anthropology, ilindsay@purdue.edu

Last updated: March 23, 2022