He carries a 3.78 grade point average while holding a part-time job. He interned with a federal disabilities agency in Washington, D.C., conducting research for the commissioner. He is president of a campus group striving to unify students and students with disabilities.
And Wright State senior Zach Holler does it all from a wheelchair, where he deals with a genetic condition that has left him with greatly limited mobility and severely visually and hearing impaired.
The 23-year-old Holler says he enrolled at Wright State thinking he would just take a few classes and then look for a job. Today, he’s scheduled to graduate in June with a degree in rehabilitation.
“I met more and more people here, with and without disabilities, and I realized what opportunities were really available to me,” Holler said. “So it’s really been progressive, starting with almost nothing–starting from scratch–and it’s built up to a lot of hope for a good career.”
Holler said he initially wanted to attend college out of state, far from his home in the western Ohio town of Clayton. A visit to Wright State and a meeting with Jeffrey Vernooy, director of the Office of Disability Services, changed his mind.
Vernooy said he was impressed with Holler’s self-awareness and skills.
“When you sit down and understand his limitations in terms of his ability to see and hear, it’s pretty darn amazing how he traverses an area that we don’t think he may be able to do,” Vernooy said.
After arriving at Wright State, Holler decided to use his experience as a person with a disability to shoot for a degree in rehabilitation. After his third year at Wright State, he moved from home into the dorms, a huge step for someone with his disability.
Holler has always been a star in the classroom. His 3.78 grade point average at Wright State followed a 3.932 GPA in high school. His academic strategy is to maintain a proper balance of study time, sleeping, personal care and friends-and-family time.
“That helps me minimize my stress and increase confidence,” he said.
Last summer, Holler landed an 11-week internship in Washington, D.C., with the Administration on Developmental Disabilities in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He assisted the commissioner on Medicaid-related research projects designed to identify areas of improvement for people with disabilities.
Since last fall, Holler has been busy as president of Abilities United, a social student organization at Wright State designed to bring together students with and without disabilities to promote awareness of advocacy and develop strategies for advocating for oneself.
“We’re trying to bring people of all abilities together in one group to break down comfort barriers,” said Holler. “Disability is a natural part of human experience; every one of us will experience disability of some kind at some point in life.”
But Holler said many people without disabilities tend to be uncomfortable with people who have disabilities because they don’t know how to approach them or are afraid they will inadvertently say something to offend them.
“That’s what we’re trying to break down,” Holler said. “We want people to come together and realize that we are more similar than different.”
Holler’s sister, Mallory, is also a Wright State student and, like her brother, has severe disabilities. Their father, Greg, says he and his wife, Kim, encourage their children just to be themselves.
“For those people who care enough to spend just a short amount of time to get to know who they are and what they bring to the table,” he said, “it doesn’t take long for people to start to seeing the neurons are connected and there is some really good stuff going on there.”
The sandy-haired Zach Holler uses interpreters to help him communicate. But his infectious smile needs no interpretation.
Vernooy said Holler connects with fellow students by using his outstanding people skills and by not being afraid to reach out.
“So often, people with that kind of disability sometimes end up hunkering down and pulling their walls in closer to them so they feel comfortable,” Vernooy said. “Zach doesn’t do that. Zach is always willing to try something new.”
Holler also holds down a part-time job with the Access Center for Independent Living, a Dayton non-profit organization that provides training, peer support and equipment designed to help people with disabilities transition from institutional settings to community living.
“I hope to see myself running my own business or starting a non-profit,” Holler said of his post-graduation plans. “I’ve thought about faith-based ministry for people with special needs, but that’s in the long term.”
Vernooy believes that Holler is destined for big things.
“I sense that he definitely is going to be a leader one day,” Vernooy said. “He’s already started that process on this campus.”