Learning to drive is a milestone for any 16-year-old. For Julianna Russell, reaching it just took a little more effort.
Russell was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that caused her spine not to be fully developed at birth. She's had multiple surgeries to correct the defect, but still has difficulty walking and sometimes has to use a wheelchair.
When she got in a car for her first driving lesson, she discovered that she didn't have enough feeling in her legs to operate the gas and brake pedals without looking at her feet.
It took some Internet research, an adaptive driving course for people with disabilities at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute and installing hand controls in her car before Russell could take on the open road.
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"It was a long and difficult process. I wanted to make it easier for teens to get that information," said Russell, now a senior at Shaw High School.
Russell created a website, I Don't Need Easy, to give young people with disabilities easy access to helpful information -- like where to find adaptive driving courses -- and to share their stories about what it's like to grow up with a disability.
"A lot of times, we do feel alone," Russell said. "The more we get ourselves out there and involved with things, the better we are."
Russell's dad, Chance, said his daughter's interest in creating an online community for disabled teens, began after she attended a summer camp for people with spina bifida.
"She doesn't have a lot of friends that are handicapped," he said. "After her experience at camp, she found friends that can relate to her every day challenges."
Russell said she hopes to get contact information and calendars for local organizations for the disabled. But she's also trying to get young people with disabilities to post their stories to the site, making it like "a Facebook for the physically handi-cap," she said.
"I'm trying to get more stories," she said. "I want to get as many as I can."
Brantley Lewis, one of Russell's teachers at Shaw, said the teen is shy, but likes helping other people. Lewis said Russell recently helped organize collections at Shaw for the Ronald McDonald House.
"This website is right up her alley. It lets her use the gifts she's been giving to help other people," she said.
Julianna said she plans to attend Columbus State University and later Emory to study to become an occupational therapist. "It's my dream," she said.
Chance said with Julianna's disability, little things can turn into accomplishments -- like when she went parasailing during one vacation or the day she got her driver's license.
"For her, everything is a step toward independence," he said. The website provides a place for disabled teens to share these moments and talk about the challenges they deal with on a daily basis, he said.
"There's a lot of Juliannas out there. She's just trying to bring them all together."
Sara Pauff,reporter, can be reached at 706-320-4469