A new wheelchair will help this University of Florida student journalist do stand-ups — literally

December 18, 2019

Student journalist Drew Dees is kind but firm when he interviews people for his Florida college TV station.

Please stand up, he instructs them. Don’t crouch down in front of me. I’m not a baby.

He understands that people might not be used to seeing a journalist in a wheelchair — he never saw any on TV when he was growing up — but he demands to be treated the same as any other reporter.

“One of the big barriers in this career field is getting people to … take you seriously,” he said.

A 24-year-old junior at the University of Florida, Dees said he’s had overwhelming support from his family and professors as he pursues a degree in broadcast journalism. His dream of being an on-air reporter and anchor feels even more real now that his insurance company has agreed to provide him with a new $50,000 wheelchair. The Permobil F5 Corpus VS chair will allow him to move from a sitting position to standing with the touch of a button.

“It’s just going to make such a world of difference for me,” he said. “Just to be able to stand up and be able to talk to people on eye level and not have to look up at someone; that’s just the most amazing feeling to me.”

Drew Dees during a fitting for his new wheelchair, which will allow him to rise to a standing position. (Photo courtesy Drew Dees)

The chair will also allow him to do what’s known in TV news as a standup, where a reporter shares information on camera while standing or walking.

“It’s going to allow me to be more creative, to have more of that demonstrative standup that we look for instead of just being a talking head,” he said.

Dees got a test run of the new chair during a recent fitting to make sure it’s properly adjusted to his body. The chair won’t be ready for several months, but Dees was so excited that he posted a picture on social media of him using the chair to stand up. On a whim, he shared that photo and story in a journalism Facebook group that has about 15,000 members.

“I’m not sure if a post like this is allowed in the group,” Dees wrote Dec. 3. “I just wanted to share my big news. Say it to my face! I’m standing y’all, this will help me take my career as a journalist to a whole new level.”

Reaction to his post was swift, with positive comments and more than 1,000 likes pouring in in less than 24 hours.

“I in no way, shape or form expected that kind of response. I didn’t do it for the attention. I expected maybe 100 likes but not 1.4K and growing,” Dees said. “But I appreciate every ounce of the love, support, kindness, messages, emails, friend requests, everything. It just means the world to me.”

Support from fellow journalists has been especially meaningful, Dees said, because he has had moments of doubt about his career choice. He has never questioned his passion for journalism, but he has wondered whether news directors and coworkers would accept his physical limitations.

“At first when I tell people, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a reporter and I’m going to be an anchor,’ they look at you like, ‘Um, how are you going to do that?’” Dees said. “Why? Because there’s that stigma … We don’t see that in the media, even in the movies.”

A pivotal moment

Dees was diagnosed with cerebral palsy around age 2, when his family noticed he wasn’t pulling himself up to stand, or trying to walk. Doctors determined he lost too much oxygen to his brain when he was born. Delivered at 28 weeks on April 12, 1995, he weighed a mere 2 pounds, 3 ounces and could fit in the palm of a hand.

Cerebral palsy is a group of neurological disorders that appear in infancy or early childhood and permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“It didn’t really affect me too much. Of course, I couldn’t get around and I couldn’t go outside and play with other kids, but other than that I saw no different in myself,” he said. “I was raised to see no different.”

Growing up, Dees cheered on the sidelines as his two younger brothers played baseball and football. He longed for the same recognition and sense of belonging they experienced. He wished his brothers could cheer him on for a change.

In high school, he heard an announcement over the intercom about a track meeting and decided to attend as a joke.

“I was like, what are they gonna do? They can’t turn me away because that’d be discrimination,” he said. “So I was at the track meeting, and all the kids were like, ‘What are you doing here? You can’t run track.’ And I’m like, ‘I know, I’m just being funny.’”

After the meeting, the track coach approached Dees with some surprising news. The Florida High School Athletic Association had an adapted wheelchair shot put event that Dees could participate in if he was interested. The coach suggested he go home and talk with his parents.

“My parents always told me ‘can’t’ is not a word in our house. You can do it and you will do it,” Dees said. “Now, imagine the look on their face when I told them, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m going to do track.’ And they’re like, ‘Uh, son, how are you going to do that?’”

After attending track tryouts at his high school as a joke, Dees was recruited to participate in adaptive shot put, and won state titles four years in a row. (Photo courtesy of Drew Dees)

What started as a joke turned out to be a pivotal moment in Dees’ life, he said. He won four consecutive state titles for adapted shot put, earning him the recognition he craved. A local TV station asked for an interview, which Dees happily accepted. He noticed how at ease and excited he felt being on camera.

“I think that may have been the turning point for journalism for me,” he said.

University of Florida student journalist Drew Dees at the WUFT-TV anchor desk. The PBS affiliate is a student-run news outlet at UF. (Photo courtesy Drew Dees)

Dees eventually applied for an internship at a TV station in Gainesville near his home in Trenton, Florida, hoping to capture some of that same magic he felt being on camera in high school, but he was turned down three times.

The repeated rejection hurt, and he thought about giving up. But he decided to try one more time for an internship — this time at WESH 2 News in Orlando.

‘Oh my God. What do I say?’

WESH News Director Kirsten Wolff was on her bi-annual trip to the University of Florida for the school’s career fair when she saw Dees coming her way in a motorized wheelchair with a personal aide beside him.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God. What do I say?’” Wolff recalled.

Would her newsroom be able to handle an intern with a disability, she wondered. How severe was his disability? Does he have trouble communicating? Moments later, Dees rolled up, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. He was a journalism student, he explained, and wanted to be an on-air reporter.

“His personality immediately disarmed any reservation I had,” Wolff said. “As I talked to him, it started to turn to, how do we make this happen? How do we tell him yes, because he’s determined.”

Their in-person meeting turned to phone calls, and Wolff began asking Dees what accommodations he would need if he interned at the station and how she could make it work. She also began talking with Harrison Hove, a lecturer in the University of Florida’s journalism department and one of Dees’ biggest supporters.

Hove taught Dees in his first TV news reporting course at the university and supervised his work in “News in 90,” a 90-second news brief that students write, anchor and edit, which airs on local TV in North Central Florida.

“Drew is one of those students that teaches me as much as I teach him,” Hove told Poynter by email. “He is his best advocate and will speak candidly about what he needs from me as an instructor.”

What Dees needed was help landing the internship at WESH and convincing the news director that he could do the work. With help from Hove, Dees finally got the good news he had been waiting for — WESH agreed to welcome him as an intern this past summer.

“Boy, has that changed my world around and gave me the hope that I needed to continue,” Dees said.

Hove is proud of his student and described him as “one of the most determined students” he has ever worked with. “Whenever we hit a snag, we work on a plan to navigate around the bump in the road.”

At WESH and his college TV station, WUFT, Dees chooses his assignments carefully. He can’t hop in a news van or car to cover breaking news. Loading him into a vehicle takes time. He can’t lug around a large TV news camera, so he shoots with a smaller DSLR.

“I can use my hands. They just don’t cooperate with me very well because I’m very stiff,” he said. “Like typing, I’m not very fast at that.”

At WESH, he got the chance to try a little bit of everything. He shadowed reporters, wrote news scripts, worked on the assignment desk and practiced anchoring. When one of the station’s producers complimented his writing and suggested he pursue TV producing as a career, Dees politely declined. He is determined not to let his physical limitations inhibit his dream of being out in the community reporting on stories, especially feature stories — his favorite.

“I am capable of doing things. I am capable of doing good work. I just need certain accommodations in order to do that and be successful,” he said.

That determination impressed WESH’s news director, who said she learned so much from Dees during his time at the station.

“Being a journalist really is an opportunity and a gift and a lot of people, after a certain amount of time, you look at it as a job,” Wolff said. “And you look at, ‘Oh, I don’t get lunch … I have to work Christmas.’ And then you look at a young man like that and it means so much to him. Everything is twice as hard for him and not only he didn’t mind it, he accepted the challenge and he found ways around any obstacle.”

‘I’m going to take every opportunity I can’

At the university’s next career fair, Wolff spoke with the Gainesville station’s representative and helped convince him to choose Dees for an internship next summer. Dees said he plans to accept the offer.

“I’m going to take every opportunity I can,” he said. “I believe in not burning any bridges. Everything happens for a reason.”

Dees in his element, practicing his own stand-up while out in the field with reporters during his internship with WESH 2. (Photo courtesy of Drew Dees)

His parents, Chris and Samantha Worley, say they are incredibly proud of their son and the career path he has chosen.

“He was always determined to do whatever he set his mind to do. I always told him he could do anything he wanted to do, he just may have to do so in a different way than we did,” Samantha Worley told Poynter by email. “His father and I love that he chose the field of journalism due to his love of being in the spotlight and wish him lots of success.”

Drew said he hopes to see more people with disabilities represented in the news media in the future. Since he began studying journalism, he has been searching for other journalists with cerebral palsy but has not found any.

In the meantime, Dees continues to look up to “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, who has publicly battled cancer and other health problems.

“I’ve been patient and I’ve waited, and God just continues to keep opening up doors for me,” Dees said. “I was given this life because God knew that I was strong enough to live it. He needed someone that was going to be the voice for people and make a difference in the lives of others. So I always say everything that I’m going through, I’m going through it for the next generation.”

Dees prepares to tape his anchor reel as part of his internship with WESH 2 News in Orlando, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Drew Dees)

Kelly Hinchcliffe is an education reporter at WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina, and previously wrote a public records column for Poynter. She has worked as an education reporter at The Herald-Sun in Durham, North Carolina, and The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland. She can be reached on Twitter @RecordsGeek and at kahinchcliffe@gmail.com.