By Anthony Langley
For Matthew Shapiro (B.I.S.’13/H&S), his time at Virginia Commonwealth University reinforced a personal belief he already held: Diversity is special.
“Throughout my time on campus I never saw one person who didn’t have their own story and experiences,” he says. “It helped me realize that when diversity is allowed to flourish, society can change.”
Shapiro, who has cerebral palsy, knew as early as high school that he wanted to pursue a career focused on disability policy. As a student at J.R. Tucker High School in Richmond, Virginia, he volunteered and advocated for those with disabilities and planned to continue to do so in college. Choosing to attend VCU came down to the opportunities he would have outside of the classroom, which included co-founding the VCU Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness Club and being a founding member of the university chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.
“Between the great classes and activities always going on around you, it’s not hard to find something to be involved in,” he says. “Coming here made me a better, well-rounded person. I wouldn’t trade my time [at VCU] for the world.”
Shapiro initially wanted to study journalism but also was looking to incorporate other subjects into his studies. After learning about the interdisciplinary studies program and sitting down with an adviser, he created a custom degree, “Advocacy for Social Justice,” that combined sociology, public policy and special education classes. He graduated with a second major in sociology and a minor in psychology.
He has continued to advocate for disability issues since graduating, serving on local government advisory boards as well as starting his own business, 6 Wheels Consulting, a reference to his wheelchair. The company works to raise awareness about issues that affect people with disabilities and to educate people about disability culture.
“I want to show people that making workplaces handicap accessible doesn’t require a heavy investment,” Shapiro says. “Sometimes it can be as simple as rearranging the furniture in a room.”
Since starting 6 Wheels Consulting a year ago, he has worked with companies and organizations, including Henrico County Public Libraries, Goodwill and Marriott Hotels, to help them modify their physical environments to comply with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He’s also partnered with the Richmond Entrepreneurs Assistance Program, which provides job-skills training for people with disabilities and provides training and other services to help businesses expand their disability awareness. In addition, he signed on with talent agencies Metropolis Management and Coleman Speaks to deliver his message to a wider audience.
“This gives me the opportunity to speak at colleges and universities around the country,” he says. “It’s a great feeling to be able to expand the conversation around people with disabilities.”
At his alma mater, he’s helping establish VCU Alumni’s Alumni With Disabilities Council. He says he hopes the group will create a forum for conversation about how the university can continue to strengthen its diversity efforts to include people with disabilities.
In October, Shapiro was named as one of Style Weekly’s 2016 Top 40 under 40 in the Richmond area for his advocacy work. Yet, despite the accolades and new opportunities opening up for 6 Wheels Consulting, he remains ever-focused on his mission to advance the discussion around those with disabilities.
“I see my work as an opportunity to be a wrecking ball that shatters the perceptions that others have of people with disabilities,” he says.
Get involved! Are you interested in learning more about the Alumni With Disabilities Council, or joining the group? Let us know.