Justin Miller isn’t the typical Salt Lake Community College student, although on paper, he may seem like one.
While taking classes such as public speaking and 3D graphic design, Miller speaks through a portable Dynavox machine. He types his words using only eye movements, which are tracked by the screen mounted in front of him.
Miller is paralyzed and has been nonverbal since he was five, but that hasn’t stopped him from making it to college and accomplishing a number of miraculous feats.
“It made me sad and unhappy years ago, but now that I am in college and doing artwork and taking classes, those are things that cheer me up,” he says. “Even though my condition has made me sad, it has also made me humble.”
Miller was a normal child who could walk until the age of two before he caught an unknown virus that paralyzed him. The illness progressed through his early years until it left him unable to move his body or speak.
Shirene McKay, Miller’s communication and public speaking professor, has been amazed at the work he has done in her class, given the communication challenges he faces. In McKay’s class, Miller has had the opportunity to give speeches on topics ranging from art history to addressing people with disabilities.
“Sometimes people talk to me like I’m a baby. People with disabilities want to be treated well, communicated with, and spoken to directly. They also want to make friends,” he says. “It’s so important to have conversations with people with disabilities since they don’t have as many opportunities to make good friends … When you talk with someone who uses a wheelchair, sit down and be eye level with the wheelchair user to show the same level of respect.”
It’s never easy living with a disability, and although Miller says he wishes he knew his diagnoses, he seems to be making the best of it. He remarks on how much he enjoys taking classes at SLCC and the professors that teach them, even when the workload is extra challenging for him.
Miller says his public speaking class can be challenging, as well as figuring out the program for his 3D design class.
“Overall, my other classes have been good. I could say that school in general is excellent,” he says.
Besides school, Miller has had many opportunities to do things that everyone else enjoys, like baseball, riding on the back of a motorcycle, biking around Liberty Park, fishing and other activities. His mother, Donna Miller, remarks that the things he has been able to accomplish are nothing short of miraculous.
When Miller was in third grade, he and his mother developed a method of communication that involves blinking the alphabet in a quick and concise manner. Over the years, the pair perfected this unique language into a fast form of communication.
“People had never seen anything like it,” she says. “He sure has taught me a lot and he’s influenced a lot of people.”
She recalls the speech technology that her son used in junior high school. At the time, Miller needed to use his head to click letters to type. Although this method was very laborious, he was able to start writing short stories.
When she came across Miller’s 40-page short story about Batman, she says she was able to get her first real glimpse inside her son’s mind.
Along with writing, Miller also creates beautiful works of art using Photoshop. Having used and, admittedly, struggled with the program in the past, Miller now showcases a gallery of brightly colored and beautifully composed abstract pieces that he has created over the years.
Miller has even sold his artwork professionally to places around the valley, including St. Mark’s Hospital and Taylorsville City Hall, and hopes his paintings can inspire those who see them. He calls his work the “art of imagination.”
Miller reaffirms his desire to be treated like any other person.
“There are people like me who are on life support, and in this way they are different and some can’t speak by mouth, but they still like to make friends,” says Miller. “I like when people come to talk to me and want to be my friend. When you meet someone with a disability, it’s always good to smile and say hello.”