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Alachua County’s Human Rights Board has a new member, and she is seeking change

Erin Field, 27, in her accessible house. “I see these committees and I’m like, 'Oh that’s cool.' So, it’s nice that I think helping people is cool,” she said. (Luis-Alfredo Garcia/WUFT News)
Erin Field, 27, in her accessible house. “I see these committees and I’m like, 'Oh that’s cool.' So, it’s nice that I think helping people is cool,” she said. (Luis-Alfredo Garcia/WUFT News)

Erin Field, 27, and her boyfriend Jack Benziger, 27, pose in their house with their two dogs. The
house had wide walkways built for accessibility and ease. (Luis-Alfredo Garcia/WUFT
News)
Erin Field cannot walk, but she has never had more power.

Field, 27, has quadriplegia from an accident in July 2017. After an extensive recovery process, she moved to Alachua County.

The aspiring disability rights lawyer was appointed at the start of the year to the Alachua County Human Rights Board and the Citizens Disability Advisory Committee. She said she does not know everything about her new work but is trying her best to help.

“I’m just one person, so sometimes it gets overwhelming or confusing. But I’m trying,” she said with a smile.

Field has not yet worked with the Human Rights Board, but she met with the Citizens Disability Advisory Committee. The groups convene whenever needed and have no set schedule. She just began her term which will end in 2026.

The committee aids the Equal Opportunity Director in applying Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Field and her peers ensure individuals with disabilities can access and participate in the benefits of Alachua County services, such as public schools and libraries. While the committee has no final say in construction and litigation, its advice is followed to meet the requirements of the law.

Field’s status of Citizen at Large has historically been an unpaid but important position. Most with the title have a disability and can give relevant criticisms of county construction concepts. She said everyone deserved to feel as though they had been thought of when passing by the newest government building.

“There were people by my side, but I felt like I had nobody,” she said. “I want to make sure at least everyone has me.”

Field now works to help others, and she is no stranger to bumps on the sidewalk.

In 2017, she and her boyfriend were visiting her brother at his house for a night of talking and pizza. She relaxed on a hammock attached to her brother’s chimney when the structure collapsed and fell on top of her. She woke up in Massachusetts General Hospital unable to remember what happened; all she knew was that she could not move her legs or most of her arms.

Field had quadriplegia, meaning she was paralyzed in her arms and legs. She was no less of a person, and those around her kept her from forgetting it, according to Field.

Doctors, friends and family assisted her through recovery. She said the most important factor outside of her own resolve was her boyfriend, Jack Benziger. The couple started dating one month before Field’s accident, and she never expected him to stay. She told him she “gets it” and he could leave.

Benziger stayed.

They had not been dating long, but he said he wanted nothing more than to be there for her. He is now her full-time caregiver and supports her through her advisory adventures. The couple lives together and enjoys going on strolls with their two dogs, Olive and Marty. Benziger said she changed the way he looked at the world.

“I would look at things before and just walk by them. Now I see how much of a hindrance certain things are, and her passion’s kind of rubbed off on me,” said Benziger, a 27-year-old caregiver.

Field was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but grew up in Sidney, Maine. She said her mother, Heidi Field, was her biggest inspiration and taught her how to care for others.

Heidi Field made sure her children were nurtured, said Erin, whether it was by stitching together homemade Halloween costumes she could not afford or staying by her injured daughter’s bedside. Erin Field said she credits her mother with making the surgeries she endured easier.

The New England native moved to Boston after her injury and to Alachua County in April 2021. Gainesville had everything she needed, according to Field. The house she moved into had previously been home to another person in a wheelchair, so accessibility was not a problem. She liked the weather. And the University of Florida was close by.

Field graduated from Goucher College of Maryland with a degree in English but had to complete seven credits online after her accident. She was not satisfied. She knew she wanted to be a lawyer but was lost on what to specialize in.

Field said it was not until she injured her vertebrae that she found her calling. She combined the memory of her love for law with the recent reality she faced. She wanted to be a disability rights lawyer.

“It all just started to make sense and piece together for me,” she said.

There was a problem.

No schools in the nation offered a program she could complete online. Field got into three law schools but only had in-person and hybrid classes as an option. With the move to Alachua County, she figured at some point she would attend the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

“I’d have to bring my caregiver, Jack, wherever I go, so staying here would be the best option. It’s a little hard and annoying, but I’ll make it through,” Field said.

Field said she experienced a lack of accessibility before the law school struggle. With nothing to do except study for her Law School Administrative Test, she applied to boards and committees in Alachua County. She was accepted almost immediately. There were vacant spots on both the board and committee, which does not come as a surprise in Alachua County.

The county’s disabled population ratio is lower than that of the state average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. She said she saw an opportunity to bring change and grasped it.

While her role in Alachua County is mostly advisory, she found another way to share her activism: social media. Field started posting as a disability activist on apps such as TikTok, where she gained 131,000 followers, and Instagram, where she gained 31,000.

She used these platforms to showcase her journey, highlight her problems and give her advice. She said the hints of quasi-fame from obtaining a following prompted her to further research how to improve her involvement to better the world for people with disabilities. She wanted to do and say the right things.

“People look at me for things now, and it’s a lot. It’s great and has helped me, but it’s a lot,” she said.

Wherever Field goes, activism follows.

In Boston, she mentored people who had recently been in accidents. In Gainesville, she joined groups to generate disability-related growth. Residents of Alachua County commended her journey and agreed with her yearning for change.

Theresa Brasby-Gather, 46, matches Field’s desire for disability-related developments. She co-founded S.T.A.G.E.S of Gainesville in 2005 and committed herself to rehabilitate and advocating for people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. Brasby-Gaither said she had been to doctor’s offices with clients and had to pry services out of the doctor that would normally be provided for other patients.

“Some people can’t talk, but they can still communicate,” Brasby-Gaither said. “There needs to be change and effective treatments enacted.”

Field and Brasby-Gaither are working to make the lives of people like Mae Ellis better.

Ellis, 59, has sickle cell anemia and is unable to walk. She said she looks forward to potential changes Field’s advice can bring.

“I get on the bus, and I get stared at. I go to the store, and I get laughed at. I don’t go to my house because I don’t have one,” Ellis said. “When people give you crap, it’s part of life. I step on that crap and wipe it off my feet.”

Field stressed the significance of needing structures with accessibility features like ramps and elevators, and the importance of keeping people without disabilities out of the blue-lined parking spots. Right now, the county is focused on adding Braille to structures for people who are blind.

She and her brother, Todd Field, are planning to release a social media app for people with disabilities. This way, she said she hopes nobody has to feel alone again.

Field unwinds at day’s end in her pool. The water is calm, caring and cold. There are no awkward paths or pitiful stares. Only Field, Benziger, Olive and Marty.

Luis-Alfredo is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.