Elon freshman’s ‘many arms’ help walk her through college life
By Merissa Blitz
“Whenever I got out, I’m like, ‘Mom, I have 50 new arms!” said Alison Avery, a freshman human services major at Elon University.
Avery takes pride in how many new “arms” she has acquired. Because she has Friedreich’s ataxia, she needs all the help she can get to keep her balance.
Friedreich’s ataxia is a neuromuscular, progressive, genetic disease that affects the person’s balance and muscle functions and can also cause vision impairment, hearing loss and slurred speech.
Since it’s a progressive disease, Avery didn’t find out until three years ago that she even had it. She had been playing sports just like any other kid – tennis and volleyball being her favorites – until she progressively started losing her balance more frequently.
“I didn’t understand at first, I just thought I was klutzy,” Avery said. “When it was harder to walk downstairs, and I started holding onto people more when I walked around, I really understood that something was happening.”
Her sister Laurel, now 17 years old, was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia when she was eight, so Avery’s parents had already been acclimated to the disease beforehand.
“When I started having symptoms of it, my parents knew exactly how to help me and explain it to me without scaring me,” Avery said.
When she was in the process of applying to Elon, Avery made sure to contact the disability services to request housing that was easily accessible to her and she said that they were pretty accommodating.
“I asked about classes and they said they could move any class I wanted if it was an issue and if I needed to get something closer to me,” Avery said.
Avery usually drives to class, since Colonnades is far away from the academic buildings, where she is able to park in a handicap spot. While most days it’s easy for her to find a parking spot, some days aren’t as easy.
“Some days I have to park outside of the brick walls and walk even further, across the street, up the hill, which is probably not safe at all,” Avery said, though she normally drives with people, so if that happens, she can hold on to them for support.
In terms of accessibility, Avery believes the academic buildings are equipped with the necessary tools to help fulfill the needs of physically disabled people.
She does have some problems, though, with the way the accessible dorms are set up.
“Colonnades is so accessible, but it’s so far away from the academic buildings and the dorms over there are not accessible – they all have stairs to get into – that was never an option for me,” Avery said.
Though Avery is lucky enough to be able to drive to class, she said that other people who have disabilities, and who don’t have a car, have to take the BioBus, which is not accessible to them because of the stairs.
Avery suggests possibly creating ramps for those dorms that are only accessible by stairs, installing elevators into those buildings as well and possibly having a BioBus that is more wheelchair accessible.
Though Avery thinks the campus could be more accessible to her, she has found people who are willing to help her whenever she is in need.
At first, Avery was nervous about coming to Elon because she was afraid people wouldn’t really understand her situation, but she’s found that the Elon community is very accepting.
“I have fallen before – that’s a big issue with my disease,” Avery said. “But normally, when I fall, random strangers will come up, help me and ask me if I need help getting to wherever I was going.”
Avery is a member of Alpha Phi Omega – a co-ed, community service fraternity, as well as a member of the Kappa Delta sorority and lives in the Italian learning community.
“I like to call it just more arms that are willing to help me out,” Avery said of the people she has met through her different organizational involvement. “I’ve found a lot of very good friends in each organization and I’m so glad I joined all of them.”