By Ali Hudak
The summer after his sophomore year in college came a rite of passage like none other. Lukas Bratcher, '10, got his first car. Yet his new customized, $156,000 vehicle surpasses the dreams of the average 19-year-old—for good reason.
Bratcher is highly limited in his mobility, having only partial use of his arms and legs. Diagnosed with a joint immobilizing condition (amyoplasia arthrgryposis multiplex congenita), at the age of two Bratcher was placed in a wheelchair.
When Bratcher finally got to drive his own car, "It felt like I was free. I've been dependent on everybody else taking me places for years and years," he said.
Bratcher's converted Toyota Sienna van was a grand step in freedom's direction, but he never let his disability stop him before that either. Whether it was playing in the marching band in high school, spending time abroad during college, hanging out with his friends or simply a love for driving, Lukas Bratcher in many ways is just a normal student.
Bratcher has loved playing his euphonium since he picked it up in fifth grade. Not even a wheelchair accident that left him with a broken arm could stop him from playing. An electronic euphonium was fashioned out of videogame parts so that Bratcher needed only to operate a joystick to control the notes. Playing in the band brought Bratcher so much joy that he joined the marching band while attending Mead High School, in Spokane, and traveled to participate in the Oregon Crusaders drum corps.
"I love being outside, I like working hard, I love being in the heat, and I love music," Bratcher said.
And his euphonium playing later paid off as he received a partial music scholarship at Whitworth.
College was another rite of passage Bratcher was not about pass up. And like many high school seniors, he found that the process of researching and selecting a school wasn't easy. Bratcher applied to many schools of varying academic standards including Whitworth University, Central Washington University, Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University and the University of Washington. He was eventually accepted into all.
"I was head over heels excited, but I had a huge decision to make," he said. Bratcher wanted to go both to Whitworth and to the University of Washington.
Deciding between the two was tough, but Bratcher chose Whitworth because of the people. "It's a homey kind of place. Everyone's really nice," he said.
And Whitworth has done as much as it has been able to do to make Bratcher's experience with his limited mobility as positive and "normal" as possible.
Upon his arrival as a freshman parts of the campus were accessible to Bratcher, such as Weyerhaeuser Hall; Duval Hall his residence hall; and the newly remodeled Dixon Hall. But others were not. A lift for the aquatic center was added so that Bratcher could do cardiovascular exercises.
However, the process of updating the campus to meet the needs of students with disabilities is ongoing. Assistant Director of Career Services Andrew Pyrc acts as an advocate for Bratcher. Pyrc explained that his job is not just about these big changes but also the small things like making sure Bratcher has a desk in each of his classrooms that is tall enough to wheel up to, or letting a professor know he might be late when his class is far from his residence hall.
Pyrc does everything he can, but as Bratcher's friend and resident assistant Ryan Tuck, '09, said, "There have been times where [Lukas] has run into obstacles in class: fire codes that prevent him from having a table or trouble with taking notes in Core, but he just found a way to make it work."
Whether it's an inaccessible dorm or working without a desk "Lukas has and will overcome any obstacle that presents itself," Tuck said. And he certainly doesn't let his limitations get in the way of his social life.
Bratcher has always enjoyed spending time with his friends. "I had a place to go and hang out in every single dorm. I have friends everywhere and I think that gave me good roots in the community," Bratcher said.
And then there's the car.
Just like many other 20-year-olds, Bratcher loves to drive. He loves a little excitement like driving fast and loves taking his friends along. "When my friends want to hang out I pick them up and I take them places," he said.
But he hasn't always had that luxury. It took seven years of paperwork and moving through bureaucracy before Bratcher received the money for his car last year. The bill came to $156,000 and the state government kicked in $116,000 of it. Bratcher explained the slow process with a smile. "That's a lot of money going out the door for a 19-year-old kid. We bought the vehicle, [the state] bought the conversion," Bratcher said. "[The government is] just slow at things like that."
His new car came equipped with a sliding door and ramp that allowed him to roll his wheelchair right up to the customized steering wheel. The van also has hand-operated gas and brake pedals. The car also came with an essential tool for college students: controls for music right in Bratcher's reach.
The wait for the converted vehicle was well worth it, he said, as he was able to gain a little piece of independence that so many take for granted. Bratcher explained that he'd been "stuck at Whitworth until midnight almost every night" during the 2006-2007 school year, when he lived off campus, simply because he had no ride home.
"I was at the mercy of other people so much. When I was able to drive by myself for the first time, and go do something for myself, it was a pretty freeing experience. I felt like a weight was automatically lifted off my shoulders. Now you have to call me to find me," he said.
Bratcher's remarkably normal life is a testament to his character. "He has not tried to deny or hide his disability, but he has also not made it his identity. "No matter where [Bratcher] goes or what he does, people will be blessed to have him in their lives," Tuck said "He is a friend to me and many others and the fact that he is in a wheelchair is often forgotten."
Now, cruising on another set of wheels, Bratcher has taken yet another step toward seeming like any other 20-year-old. As he said, these days you have to call him to find him.