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East County woman tells those with disabilities to set their goals sky high

Emily Rowley was born without arms due to phocomelia, a rare condition that causes limb malformations. At 22, she puts herself outside of her comfort zone to chase her goals.

Emily Rowley graduated from Southern New Hampshire University and now will pursue her master's degree in forensic psychology.
Emily Rowley graduated from Southern New Hampshire University and now will pursue her master's degree in forensic psychology.
Photo by Melanie Plourde
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When Emily Rowley entered her freshman year at Fallbrook Union High School, just north of San Diego, California, she might have wondered how the school would handle her "situation."

Rowley, now 22 and living in East County, was born with phocomelia, a rare condition that causes babies to be born with no or underdeveloped limbs. In Rowley's case, she was born without arms.

The didn't hold her back; it only slowed her down.

Her parents, Patricia and Jason Rowley, always were convinced she would be best served by allowing her to learn to live in the "real world" while overcoming her personal challenges.

"There was no decision to make, other than her going to public school," Patricia Rowley said. "Typical kids get picked on. The world is what it is. We didn't want her to be sheltered."

To that point, Emily Rowley said she only had positive experiences in her schools, Kinchafoonee Primary School from first to third grades and then Mary Fay Pendleton Elementary in Oceanside, California, fourth to eighth grade.

While it was hard to watch her fall, her parents allowed Emily Rowley to try all the hobbies she wanted.
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"Growing up, I always was grateful for my school situation," she said. "The students always were welcoming. Honestly, if it happened (other students being mean), I don't recall it. It was easy to make friends and I never was outcasted."

But would it be different in high school?

She received a quick indication that everything would be just fine.

As a freshman, Rowley showed up with a modified desk which had a floor-level drawer for her books and writing instruments. Just above that drawer was a low shelf. Since she took notes by writing with her foot, it served her well.

"Using my foot is just natural," she said. "The same way you would use your hands. You just use your natural instincts."

Her desk was rather bulky and almost impossible to move from class to class if she was going to attend classes with her fellow students.

It only took a few days for her parents to receive a call from a maintenance worker at the school.

"He wanted to see what her desk looked like," Patricia Rowley said.

To this day, Emily Rowley doesn't know whether if was just the maintenance staff or faculty members and students also involved, but it was a very short time before five replica desks showed up at all her classrooms. It was done low key, but it amounted to a huge embrace.

Emily Rowley loves to ride her recumbent bike.
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She prospered through high school in an environment filled with friendship and kindness.

"I heard the horror stories," Patricia Rowley said of how students could make life difficult on a fellow student trying to blend in or school administrators not being accommodating. "However, that was not our experience.

"All her schools were accommodating, whatever her needs," Patricia Rowley said. "But we wanted to keep her needs limited because we didn't want her to be treated differently. We found that the schools listened, and were supportive."

No demands

Emily Rowley said it helped that her parents never went to one of her schools and made demands. They never made her, or her classmates, feel like everything revolved around her.

"They weren't like, 'Emily has no arms. We need to prep the other kids.'"

Her successful high school career has led to other opportunities. On May 5, Rowley graduated from Southern New Hampshire University, receiving her degree in psychology after taking online classes. She attended the ceremony in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Parents Patricia and Jason Rowley on a family vacation with Emily and her older sister Katelynn
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Previously, she had attended MiraCosta College (California) for two years. After those two years, her family moved to Florida and she took off a year from college to consider her choices.

Now that she has earned her psychology degree, she will immediately begin pursuing her masters in forensic psychology. 

"Yes, we are very proud," Patricia Rowley said. "This was a big milestone for her. She has gone way beyond anyone's expectations."

Besides being a college student, Rowley has become a disability advocate and content creator online. She wants to inspire others with stories and videos of how she navigates the world using her feet to do things like cook and drive.

Although she is only 22, she said she has seen, in some ways, those facing physical challenges face a tougher world than she did as a youngster.

Emily Rowley says her education experience through the years has been positive, with her classmates embracing her with friendship.
Photo by Jay Heater

"It's just the way some kids treat other kids," she said. "Some people assume you are a nothing. Online, I see more negativity than I see in person. You say what you say when you aren't looking at me."

However, she does say that school systems have seen more students with challenges blend with the regular student body.

"This isn't their first rodeo," she said of the teachers. "There is more knowledge."

Set high goals

She advocates for students with a disability to be allowed to set their goals high and to be allowed to attempt experiences that might be deemed beyond their ability. She didn't join a phocomelia type group because "I didn't want my daily life to be talking about it. I just want me friends to be my average peers. I fit in right where I am at."

She said her role as an advocate is natural because her parents were her advocates before she was born.

"My mother was asked if she wanted to continue the pregnancy because I wouldn't have arms," Rowley said. "My parents said that not having arms was the least of their worries. My parents advocated for me before I could."

Patricia Rowley remembered getting that news after an ultrasound, and she was also told that her daughter could be "on machines her whole life." But they were going to give Emily ever chance at life.

Emily Rowley isn't afraid to try things outside her comfort zone, like skiing.
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While things were different as she tried to learn the basics, her parents let her try, finding she would eventually figure out a way around her challenges.

"That's a tough one," Patricia Rowley said of a mother's duty to help her child when that child struggles. "It's hard for anybody to take a step back in that situation."

She tried ballet and soccer, though she said she quit soccer because she was afraid she was going to get hit with the ball. She liked playing with chalk, and her Barbies.

Now she has many of the same hobbies as her peers. She loves to cook and bake, work with makeup and create craft items. She loves physical fitness and she bikes, swims and even skis.

"I like doing things that put me outside my comfort zone," she said.

She has a driver's license after passing the test the second time. She has to have a special knob on the steering wheel so she can drive with her feet, and she has pedal extensions. She said her toughest challenge driving is that she is 4-foot-11 and it can be tough to see over the dash.

However, unlike many drivers, she said she is not texting or eating while she drives.

"I think the biggest message I would like to get across to people is to not assume things with people. I realize that for some people I meet, there is an uncomfortableness. But it is a learning experience for everyone.

"For those who face a challenge, you can throw a Frisbee. if you want to ride a scooter, just try. I tried to go fast, and that was the retirement of the scooter."


Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.