As the fifth generation on their family’s ranch in McCulloch County, Ty ’21 and Taylor Sutton ’21 learned the value of hard work, facing challenges and never letting physical disability limit their life goals.

The siblings were born with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease that affects the nerve cells in the spine that control muscles used for movement. The progressive disease weakens and shrinks muscles. Since he was 2 years old, Ty has used a power wheelchair; Taylor walked until she also needed a wheelchair when she was around 11 years old.

Taylor and Ty Sutton in Aggie Park at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.
Taylor and Ty Sutton are helping shape the future of accessibility for students at Texas A&M University.(Michael Miller/Texas A&M AgriLife)

With courage, persistence and resilience, Ty and Taylor have overcome barriers to not only achieve their goals of completing their college education but also to reduce obstacles for others with disabilities.

Their journey led them to the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences where, in 2021, they both earned bachelor’s degrees in agricultural leadership and development. Ty also minored in Extension education.

Ty is now a graduate teaching assistant for the department, pursuing a master’s degree. During an internship with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service office in McCulloch County in the summer of 2021, he became interested in a career with AgriLife Extension in the Texas 4-H and Youth Development Program.

“I intend to become a Texas 4-H specialist,” he said. “I hope to help make it even more accessible and inclusive, so youth of all abilities can fully participate, learn and grow as they pursue their future endeavors.”

Taylor is a part-time administrative associate at the Texas A&M University Health Services Counseling and Mental Health Care center while studying as a graduate student in the Sam Houston State University Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.

“As a counselor, I want to focus on people with disabilities and outreach initiatives that support physically disabled populations,” she said. “My approach will involve reaching out to rural communities and providing mental health awareness and education.”

Taylor said that because farming and ranching includes many challenges and stresses, providing telehealth options for rural communities can help “reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, and people can seek help without having to take time off and travel for counseling services.”

Shaped by family, community and a ranching legacy

Ty credits his parents, Barry and Gloria Sutton, his community and growing up on a ranch as “the cornerstone of who I am today. They instilled in me the values of hard work, tenacity, grit, integrity and respect.”

Ty and Taylor were home-schooled and helped on the ranch.

“We did a lot of things with our family — running the livestock, drenching and vaccinating,” Taylor said. “When we couldn’t do the physical things, our parents still brought us along. So, we never had the mindset of ‘you have a disability, so you can only do X-Y-Z.’ It was, ‘OK, you can’t do this, but we’ll figure out a way.’”

For example, there were times when a field would be too wet or the dirt too loose, and their wheelchairs got stuck, Taylor said. They learned to use a utility vehicle and trailer to make it across a field in those conditions.

“We learned to creatively adapt, to really go out of our comfort zone and make things work,” Taylor said. “We carried this mindset as we came to college on the large Texas A&M campus.”

Ty Sutton and cattle in the background on ranch land.
Growing up on a ranch taught Ty Sutton the values of hard work and facing challenges. (Courtesy photo)

Ty described himself as a “go-getter,” a “busy little kid,” and never one to settle for mediocrity. He explained he always enjoyed living life to its fullest and, whether rounding up sheep and goats or just doing things he enjoyed, he did not allow his disability to hinder him.

“I enjoyed going hunting with my dad,” Ty said. “And I would sit there and observe everything until technology was developed around 2010, which enabled people like me to shoot and hunt. I could use adaptive equipment operated by a sip-and-puff trigger mechanism.”

Hunting is still one of his favorite pastimes when he goes home to the ranch.

Becoming Aggies and servant leaders

Ty always wanted to attend Texas A&M and continue his agricultural legacy by obtaining an agricultural leadership degree.

“What attracted me to this university and the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication was the caring spirit toward other Aggies, a core value of selfless service that I hold very dear,” Ty said. “My decision to come here was a good fit.”

Taylor echoed similar sentiments and explained how valuable it was to learn about and practice leadership during her studies.

“We explored and experienced different leadership principles, and I’ve learned that my leadership style is as a servant-leadership model,” she said. “This understanding and framework is helping me as I enter the counseling field and encourage diversity, create trust with people and help them grow as leaders for whatever aspect that might be in their lives.”

Personal growth and serving others in the Corps of Cadets

Ty brought another life goal to Texas A&M that would be both a challenge and an opportunity for him, his sister and one of the oldest institutions on campus. In 2018, he and Taylor became members of the Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets.

“We had the chance to change what it looked like to be in the Corps,” Ty said. “My goal was to change the status quo and show that leadership begins with the ability to reason and communicate effectively with others; it is not based on physical strength alone.”

Reflecting on their experience, Taylor spoke about the Corps’ willingness to learn what the Suttons could and could not do to best support them.

“We had a lot to figure out together,” Taylor said. “But I believe our time with the Corps helped them become more aware of people’s disabilities. Being a leader is more than being physically fit. With mental resilience, you can overcome any challenge.”

Ty and Taylor Sutton in formation with the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets on Kyle Field at Texas A&M University, College Station.
As officers in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, Ty and Taylor Sutton were responsible for training and mentoring cadets. (Courtesy photo)

Both Ty and Taylor earned the rank of lieutenant colonel, which allowed them to serve in the Corps Staff as the executive officer for day cadets. They were responsible for the physical and mental training, development and mentoring of 10 day cadets. Ty also served as the assistant discipline officer to the Corps adjutant and Taylor was an assistant to the Corps training officer.

“The Corps helped us grow as individuals because we experienced training freshmen and developing plans to help them grow,” Taylor said. “It took the focus off us and onto someone else — we could contribute and help others.”

In 2020, Ty and Taylor received the Aggie Spirit Award from the Texas A&M Faculty Senate. The award honors students who have overcome extraordinary circumstances to achieve academic success and embody the Aggie Spirit. In 2021, Taylor received the Buck Weirus Spirit Award, which recognizes students’ outstanding contributions to student life and programs.

Facilitating access for all

Today, Ty and Taylor work in leadership roles that help people with disabilities on the Texas A&M campus. These roles grew from their research projects with the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication.

Ty’s master’s thesis focuses on how universal design can reduce barriers to access to academic buildings for students with physical disabilities. The catalyst for his research interest came from a question from one of his professors.

Chad Nelson, Ph.D., instructional associate professor in the department, asked Ty if he experienced barriers around campus. Ty explained that the campus complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act law and regulations by having an automatic push button on doors for people to independently access buildings. However, the push buttons are often too high for people in manual wheelchairs or with limited dexterity or mobility.

“For someone like me, I don’t have any mobility in my arms nor the strength to push the button,” Ty said. “I might have to wait for people to come and help me open the door. If it is raining, I have had to sit in the rain and wait for someone to help.”

“Sometimes your most significant limitations start with your ability to conquer your own mindset.”

Ty Sutton

Nelson and Ty obtained funding from Texas A&M AgriLife Research to add wave motion sensors, activated with the wave of a hand, to the Agriculture and Life Sciences building in the Texas A&M AgriLife complex on campus.

“Accessibility doesn’t only affect people with disabilities,” Ty said. “For example, if you’re carrying packages and the sensor detects your body as you go by and opens the door, it makes it easier for you. That’s the beauty of a universal design. It’s not for one group of people; it’s for everyone.”

Ty and Scott Cummings, Dr.P.H., associate department head for graduate programs in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications, are developing further research about the accessibility of campus buildings. Among Ty’s teaching assistant duties are Cummings’ Introduction to Leadership class as well as the department’s Leading Change and Survey of Leadership Theory classes. He also serves as an Honor Council member for the Aggie Honor System Office.

“Ty is one of the most outstanding individuals you would ever meet, with the utmost integrity and loyalty,” Cummings said. “He’s tough, and the students all love him. He has a remarkable future ahead of him. Ty doesn’t let anything bother or stop him. He just charges forward and accomplishes his goals.”

Creating community

In spring 2023, Taylor began a peer support group for physically disabled students as a result of an independent research project with Sakina Dixon, project manager with the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications.

“We looked at how factors such as academics and social life contributed to how people with physical disabilities thrive during college,” Taylor said. “Participants shared that they were not aware of any spaces where students with disabilities could gather, talk about their experiences and share advice. Not having a community affects people’s mental well-being when they cannot share their experiences with others who empathize and show that they are not alone.”

The peer support group has grown in the past year and is exploring how to become a student organization to do more outreach and increase awareness and education about disabilities.

“Your physical disability is part of your identity, but it does not define your worth or place in society.”

Taylor Sutton

Encouraging others to succeed

Ty and Taylor Sutton are determined to continue to live to their fullest potentials and are preparing for careers that will encourage and motivate others to achieve their own life goals.

“My desire has always been to disrupt the status quo by making the environment more inclusive and encouraging individuals to learn that anything is achievable despite limited abilities,” Ty said. “Sometimes your most significant limitations start with your ability to conquer your own mindset.”

Taylor added, “Know who you are, your values and where you come from, then be confident in it. Your physical disability is part of your identity, but it does not define your worth or place in society. Every struggle and challenge are an opportunity for growth and to prove you can overcome what may seem impossible.”

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