By Victoria Bresnahan and Tamonda Griffiths
Chris Fraser steadily drags his feet across campus to the Adanti Student Center without the support of crutches or ankle-foot orthotics. His feet frozen at an angle that looks like he is about to fall; he never does. Fraser, a sophomore and elementary education collaboration major, was born with a type of cerebral palsy called bilateral spastic diplegia.
Fraser was unable to walk until he received his AFOs, which support and control the direction of his ankles.
“They [go] right in your cast and give you support,” says Fraser. “And I just wasn’t strong enough to stand up. Once
I got walking, it was no problem. I just had to hold onto things.”
With his form of cerebral palsy, the disorder is evenly split between both of Fraser’s legs, forcing him to walk on his toes and propel his legs forward in order to walk. The man people see today is a result of hours of physical therapy.
“I get fatigued really easily,” says Fraser of having to walk across campus.
Fraser was supposed to be on the door-to-door shuttle listing for students with disabilities associated with their range of movement, but refused to take advantage of the convenience; as Fraser says, he is not one who allows his physical limitations to dictate his life.
“Don’t tell me I can’t do something, I’m just going to do it anyway,” he says.
From birth to his first couple weeks of life in a neonatal intensive care unit, he says his parents realized something was not quite right when Fraser—the youngest of five children—did not hit the milestones of a growing baby. His first steps were not until the age of 3.
It was not until age 7 that Fraser and his family began his series of corrective surgeries. His first surgical procedure involved the injection of Botox into his calf. When that failed, Fraser and his family relocated to Connecticut and sought the help of pediatric orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter DeLuca.
“Love him to death,” says Fraser, “because he is the reason my heels touch the floor.”
His day-to-day routine as a college student consists of frequent visits to the Disability Resource Center, a place Fraser says he frequents so often he is known by name. Before each semester following the registration period, students with disabilities go to the DRC in order to outline any and all academic accommodations a student may need. Those accommodations include note-takers, testing help, and access to the Center for Educational and Assistive Technology.
Fraser says he meets with Alana McAleavey, a disabilities specialist, to map out a step-by-step plan to condense his week. Cerebral palsy not only affects Fraser’s motor skills and movement, but also his ability to intake various stimuli and sequence events.
“I have sticky notes all over the place,” says Fraser. “It’s how I remember to do things. I have like, a physical representation of a thought, [and] just like interact with it.”
Throughout his academic experience, Fraser says professors have been understanding. He recalls how in 2017, he had not realized the amount of mobility that would be involved in traveling around campus.
“I just had a bunch of spasms in my legs,” Fraser says, “and I usually can’t stand, when I, when I have spasms, so I just email my professors, ‘I actually can’t stand up, probably won’t be coming to class.’”
Fraser says one of the biggest differences between high school and college is advocacy and independence.
“You need to build that sense of yourself and like know what you need and where to go to get it,” says Fraser.
Being able to do things on his own, even on a fundamental level, empowers Fraser.
“I’m not alone, which is something that I’ve learned,” says Fraser.
Kathryn Cullen, a sophomore and special education major, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 2-1/2 years old.
“It basically makes it more difficult for me to walk, run, jump, do things like [in] that nature,” says Cullen, “and also like fine-motor skills—writing, using scissors, zippers, pencils.”
For Cullen, the DRC was a primary reason she choose to enroll into the university. It was there she was provided with the help and tools she needed before she began her freshman year. Before this, she felt terrified to ask for help; she says she had no idea how to advocate for herself.
“I had a good experience dealing with my disability in high school but nothing to the extent of what they have been able to offer me,” says Cullen.
To help get around campus, Cullen says she can call the shuttle service to pick her up and drop her off at any location on campus. Icy, rainy or snowy conditions are no longer a problem for her since she is on the shuttle transport list.
“You just call them 15 to 20 minutes before you have to go to class, you tell them where you are, and they meet you there,” says Cullen. “And then you get on the shuttle and they take you to the building wherever your class is.”
Throughout her life, Cullen has undergone various surgeries. She says the recovery, not the procedure, is the most difficult part.
“For me, personally, I’ve always had recovery periods where I’m like unable to walk by myself for however many weeks and you’re like walking with a walker or you’re in a wheelchair,” says Cullen. “You go from being mildly noticeable to like very noticeable.”
Cullen, who also suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, says her anxiety is comorbid to her cerebral palsy. Small things like a harsh day can cause her to worry about getting to school or progressing through her day.
Fears of the unexpected happening, such as falling, perturb Cullen as well. She describes it as racing thoughts of someone noticing her cerebral palsy and believing she is incapable of helping herself. Everyone is capable of helping another person, if they just speak with them, says Rory Dougall.
“I have learned a lot from talking with Chris and talking with people with disabilities,” says Dougall, a senior, and social work major, “and I think that it’s not comfortable talking to someone who might not look like you, but I think that we all have the power to help people if we just talk to them, and you go outside your comfort zone.”
In middle school, Dougall’s needs, tasks and actions were decided for him. The lifestyle of a college student finally granted him the independence to make those decisions himself.
“Everything that you want to do, people know about,” says Dougall. “Whereas when I got to college, not everybody knew what I was doing all the time.”
In high school, an aide was with him all day. In college, they are there only for four hours a day.
“My freshman year, when I got breakfast, I got two donuts and a coffee and like it literally felt good to have that kind of [ability to do what you want],” says Dougall.
The university was his first choice, Dougall says, because it was the only college he visited that had wheelchair accessible dormitories. It was paramount that the college of his choice had the appropriate resources to aid his cerebral palsy considering he travels by power wheelchair.
Growing up, there was a lack of role models who had disabilities for Dougall to look up to. Now, as a social work major, he intends to help others and battle back against any loneliness they may feel.
“I want to help people who feel alone or feel misunderstood or judged,” he says, “and I want to help them feel better about themselves.”
This newfound independence helped him be honest with himself and come out as gay when he was a freshman in college. The feeling of not being watched as frequently allowed him to view himself honestly, and reflect on the parts of himself he had shied away from before.
However, Dougall says, those he is close with were not completely comfortable for him to reveal his sexuality. Some, he says, are not prepared to accept others based on their gender or sexuality; he wishes this was different.
While being gay is more commonly accepted in society, Dougall speaks of it frequently to teach others about different sexualities.
“I think as we progress as a society we will find ways of including everyone and it will be a lot more easier,” says Dougall, who is also an intern at the SAGE Center.
Southern will always be the place he had the chance to be himself, he says.
“It really marked the beginning of just being myself and having that freedom,” he says, “and that’s what I’m gonna remember Southern the most by.”