Chris Hays, who grew up with cerebral palsy, has overcome much to become the Chancellor’s Medal recipient at UW Bothell and a member of the university’s class of 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Chris Hays, who grew up with cerebral palsy, has overcome much to become the Chancellor’s Medal recipient at UW Bothell and a member of the university’s class of 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Purchase Photo

UW Bothell medalist a champion for people with disabilities

Cerebral palsy didn’t keep 2021 grad Chris Hays from achieving. “He tries, he does, and he succeeds.”

As UW Bothell holds its virtual graduation ceremony Sunday, Chris Hays will be honored as the 2021 Chancellor’s Medal recipient. On campus this week, he laced his fingers around his cellphone — one tiny example of how he’s found ways to achieve big success.

“I always had to kind of adapt,” said Hays, whose cerebral palsy has meant overcoming all kinds of barriers.

In the university’s Discovery Hall Wednesday, the 29-year-old Hays demonstrated how he deals with the difficulty of texting. To make it easier, he said, “I interlace my fingers around my phone.”

That’s one of countless strategies Hays said he’s used to successfully navigate school and life.

“What drives me is to show people what is achievable,” he said. “People have doubted me my whole life.”

Hays has more than answered those doubts.

A Law, Economics & Public Policy major who minored in human rights, he’ll graduate cum laude with a 3.88 grade point average, earning his bachelor of arts degree. Law school may be next, or a master’s in public policy, with a long-term goal of changing the world for people with disabilities.

Hays believes the disabled community has been left out of conversations about equity. “I want to raise the voice of the disabled,” he said.

While at UW Bothell, Hays was on the Chancellor’s Advisory Council for Students. He was selected for the university’s Washington, D.C., Human Rights Seminar. An intensive program held virtually this academic year, the seminar was part of his studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.

Hays has been a legislative intern, too, working with 5th Legislative District Reps. Lisa Callan and Bill Ramos. And he’s a volunteer with the Seattle-based Outdoors for All Foundation, which provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. When he was 15, the nonprofit helped him learn to ski.

He’s also included on the University of Washington’s 2021 Husky 100 list — students recognized for “making the most of their time at the UW.”

“He is a young man that could use so many excuses to not do, to not succeed, to not even try,” wrote Lenina Arenas-Fuentes, chief of staff for UW Bothell’s Office of the Chancellor. In a letter nominating Hays for consideration as this year’s medalist, she wrote that he “reminds me each time we chat that most obstacles come from within. He tries, he does, and he succeeds.”

Cerebral palsy, a group of neurological disorders, is caused by a disruption or abnormality in brain development, most often before birth. Its cause may not be known, but factors can include gene mutations, lack of oxygen to the brain, fetal stroke, maternal or infant infections, or traumatic head injury to an infant.

UW Bothell’s class of 2021 Chancellor’s Medal recipient is Chris Hays. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

UW Bothell’s class of 2021 Chancellor’s Medal recipient is Chris Hays. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms may include stiff muscles, uncontrollable movements and poor balance and coordination. Someone with severe cerebral palsy might not be able to walk, while a person with milder symptoms may not need special help.

“It’s a range, moderate to extreme. I’m kind of low-moderate,” said Hays, who is affected by muscle spasms.

Hays, who went to Sammamish High School, said he fell in love with education only after leaving Western Washington University, where he started college a decade ago. He said that isolation was a big reason he dropped out.

He was troubled by stigmas and stereotypes, particularly how people with disabilities are viewed by others as “de-sexualized.”

“No one sees you as an intimate being,” said Hays, adding that he felt alone. With a counselor, he talked about past traumas and how those feelings can fuel a loss of self-worth.

“What I’ve learned through therapy, I’m perfect the way I am,” Hays said. “If others don’t accept me, I don’t have time for them.”

Today, Hays lives with his girlfriend, a teacher. They have a golden retriever named Ponyo and love to travel.

The hurts still happen. Before the pandemic, while at a comedy show with his girlfriend, Hays said a group of men called him “the R word,” the offensive term that’s been used to describe a person with an intellectual disability.

More recently, he was kicked out of a store for wearing a mask that didn’t cover his nose. Hays has asthma. The chain store, he said, later sent him an apology, and at his request made a donation to Outdoors for All.

On the UW Bothell campus, Hays has pushed for better access for students with disabilities. Maria Lamarca Anderson, UW Bothell’s communications director, said that through the student advisory council Hays has been in conversations about needs for a residence hall that’s being developed.

Hays also sought changes in parking, an issue on any campus.

“My car always acted as a mobility device,” said Hays, who talked of how he needed to use “all the secret handicapped spaces.” Hays’ perspective helped shape the placement of accessible parking, letting students with disabilities more easily use cars on campus, according to Lamarca Anderson’s profile of the medal winner, which is posted on the UW Bothell website.

Hays described his parents as champions of his education and of “dreaming big.”

“I realize I’m one of the lucky ones, with resources and champions,” he said. Others “sometimes don’t have the resources or accommodations.”

“I want to be a voice for those people, and be that champion,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com

Talk to us

More in Local News

Carmen Miller, (left) helps Ezekiel Eagle with his selection at Tulalip Remedy in Tulalip on August 22, 2018.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Joints for jabs: Pot-up at a pop-up COVID vaccination clinic

Remedy Tulalip is giving away cannabis cigarettes to those 21 and older who get a shot on Tuesday.

This condo on Norton Ave. in Everett was sold Friday, June 18. (Sue Misao / The Herald)
Snohomish County home values soar in latest assessment

Lack of affordable housing put the squeeze on buyers and drove up home prices across Snohomish County.

Cars make their way across US 2 between Lake Stevens and Everett as wildfire smoke makes downtown Everett barely visible on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Wildfire smoke: A burning health issue is getting worse

As the hazardous haze increases during fire seasons, it’s time to get serious and prepare, experts say.

Everett's Patrick Hall was among people who put up signs in March to save the Longfellow School building.  He is now part of an advisory task force looking at options for the building, which the Everett School District had planned to tear down.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
National register listing could be next for old Longfellow

But the designation wouldn’t stop the Everett School District from tearing down the former school.

Harry Lee Jones Jr.
Man gets 31½ years for shooting Everett motel guest 12 times

Harry Lee Jones Jr., 27, beat and then shot a Farwest Motel guest in 2018 while two accomplices looted his room.

Pallet communities are groups of tiny homes for unhoused people. Here, a worker installs weatherstripping on a pallet shelter at Pallet in Everett in January 2020. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)
Tiny home community is proposed at a Marysville church

The Pallet shelter community would provide transitional housing to eight people. Neighbors have questions.

Photo courtesy Laura Thompson 

Madison Thompson and her dog Stella.
Whidbey teen, golden retriever make top 8 in NY kennel show

Madison Thompson was one of the youngest competitors in her division of 80 kids.

Chris Stack and Samantha Soule film a scene of their movie, "Midday Black, Midnight Blue," on the Coupeville wharf June 14. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)
Indie film crew: Whidbey residents are ‘generous and welcoming’

The movie makers are shooting scenes for a full-length feature at various sites around the island.

With the Olympic mountains in the background, the first passenger flight by Alaska Airlines Flight 2878 departs for Portland on opening day of the Paine Field Terminal on Monday, March 4, 2019 in Everett, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Snohomish County airports get $5.5 million in federal grants

Paine Field will receive $5.4 million. Arlington’s airport and Harvey Field each are getting $59,000.

Most Read