(Reposted from the College of Charleston Magazine)
Alex Jackson, a College of Charleston graduate, acquired a spinal cord injury at 9 months of age, and has used a wheelchair ever since. Every Tuesday, Alex shares information on his blog, Tuesday Talk with Alex, about his disability and other disability-related news.
He speaks with confidence and conveys intimacy. His voice is smooth and deep. You don’t mind him interrupting, because he doesn’t linger too long. He’d rather be sharing the music he loves than bending your ear.
“We’re rolling into the weekend,” says Alex Jackson ’10. “It’s Friday afternoon, and you’re listening to the A-Train on College of Charleston Radio.”
With that comes the gentle singing of CeCe Winans’ “Holy Spirit, Come Fill This Place.” It’s one of Jackson’s favorite songs to open the show, and it serves as a blessing for the two hours of music and talk to come. For five years, Jackson hosted his own weekly show on College of Charleston Radio, serving up a smattering of gospel, R&B, Motown and soul music. Sometimes, he’d slip in some reggae and Christian rock, or invite a guest to play live music on the air. As a freshman, he worried how he’d fill two hours of airtime, and made detailed playlists of every song he would play. By the time he graduated, he was a relaxed veteran of the airwaves, and was more casual in his song selection and show preparation.
That Jackson handles his radio duties and other responsibilities with ease is a credit to his strength, optimism and can-do attitude. As an infant, Jackson was involved in an automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic. During his time at the College, he navigated campus in a wheelchair and was forced to adapt creatively to a number of challenges, which included broadcasting his radio show remotely until he successfully lobbied for the installation of a handicapped-accessible elevator in the College’s student media headquarters in the Calhoun Annex.
Nate Mallard ’09 recalls the days when Jackson did his show remotely in a storeroom, and how he persevered through the technical difficulties that inevitably cropped up each week. “I felt disheartened, because I knew Alex loved doing his show, and every week there seemed to be a problem. But it never seemed to bother him,” says Mallard, who worked as the radio’s general manager for a year. “He would just keep going, trying his hardest to learn the new ways I would cook up to make his show happen.”
Besides the radio show, the communication major and Charleston native sang with the College of Charleston Gospel Choir, stayed active in his church and volunteered with a local Boy Scout troop as an assistant scoutmaster. Jackson also worked in the Center for Disability Services, eager to ease the burdens faced by other students with disabilities and offer his suggestions for accessibility improvements in new buildings on campus, including the Carolina First Arena, the George Street Apartments and the Liberty Street Residence Hall.
One colleague at the disability center, Kay Fitkin, compliments Jackson for always showing up to work with a smile, sense of purpose and a penchant for joke telling. “His attitude is phenomenal. It helps the people who are with him. He doesn’t sweat the small things,” says Fitkin, a student service coordinator. “He is such a take-charge person.” As Jackson leaves the College and considers public relations job possibilities, he’s confident he’ll find a new place to fit in. At the College, Jackson says, he acquired courage and learned that he could achieve anything he set his mind to. He also learned the importance of good friends and family, and the value of independence. In other words, he is prepared for whatever is on the horizon.
“As college should, it opens your eyes to new things and new people,” says Jackson. “It’s definitely made me a better person.”
Meagan Orton, previous Miss CofC, had good reason to be out of step.
Meet Miss Perfect, Meagan Orton ’11 – stunning beauty, Honors College student, exceptional dancer and upstart theatre actress. She keeps an insanely busy schedule, running from class to rehearsal to sorority functions to study sessions at the library before finally laying her head down for the night. She also does it with a hearing disability.
In the spring 2009, during her sophomore year, Orton woke up one day ready to take a final exam. The only problem was she couldn’t hear out of one ear. She skipped the exam in favor of the doctor’s office that day, but the doctor could provide no relief. Over the next few weeks, Orton’s condition deteriorated. She lost hearing in her other ear, gained weight, suffered from rashes and experienced joints so swollen she had trouble walking. She also suffered from insomnia, meaning she had an inordinate number of waking hours to dwell on how her world had suddenly turned upside down.
She cried for a day or two, then resolved to stop feeling sorry for herself and carry on and learn sign language if necessary. Fortunately, over the summer months, she regained hearing in her left ear with the help of a hearing aid. Her rash, swollen joints, insomnia went away, too, after she discovered medication designed to jump-start her hearing was causing an allergic reaction. She returned to school, and, in December 2010, received a bone-anchored hearing aid, or Baha, in her right ear, restoring her hearing. Meanwhile, though, she’d also captured the crown as Miss College of Charleston after competing, dancing while hearing-impaired.
“I was so excited to be on stage dancing,’ Orton says. “I just decided I would have fun with it and represent my story the best I could.”
In June, she competed in the Miss South Carolina pageant, advocating for those who suffer from sudden hearing loss. During her senior year at the College, she plans to continue that advocacy, promoting awareness of hidden and non-obvious disabilities and counseling children to accept people who are different.
“I’m supposed to be a voice,” she says, “for other people like me who are hearing impaired.”
Cassandra Caldwell was born a performer. From very young, she remembers dancing and singing at family get-togethers for an audience of one or 100. Her dreams to pursue formal theater training were finally realized at the College of Charleston. Last year, the Brooklyn native transferred from Trident Tech, and threw herself into all the College’s theater program had to offer: set design, stage makeup and of course, acting.
“It was a whole new world for me – I was working alongside and learning from professors with amazing talent.” Cassandra’s “new world” at the College also included receiving tremendous support for her dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs a person's fluency or comprehension accuracy in being able to read, and which can manifest itself as a difficulty with phonological awareness, phonological decoding, auditory short-term memory, or rapid naming. What could have been an obstacle in her pursuit of the big stage, Cassandra sees her dyslexia differently.
“Dyslexia,” she says, “isn’t a disability, it’s just a different learning style and the College’s SNAP Services have helped me find the resources I need to learn. SNAP services ranged from getting books on tape, to having a reading ally or taking tests orally. The resources available to me here have given me more confidence in my studies and my abilities.”
Cassandra has participated in multiple student productions and last fall was a member of cast of Hairspray with Charleston Stage Company. “Standing on the stage at Dock Street Theater last fall was a dream come true. It was such an inspiring moment for me – even with dyslexia, I can do this.”