Passionate Advocate: Personal Experience Inspires Alumna to Aid Persons with Disabilities

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

On bad days, getting out of bed feels almost impossible for Amelia Coonrod. On the good ones — the days when her back doesn’t hurt as much and her energy is up — things are a little bit easier. But cerebral palsy affects her life every day.

Coonrod was born three months premature and diagnosed at that time with the neuromuscular disorder. And while it has helped shape her into the person she is today, the 24-year-old UNC Charlotte School of Social Work alumna is quick to point out that it does not define her. For the full picture, look instead to the path she has chosen to tread and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

As with many others, Coonrod’s personal experiences began to crystalize in college and graduate school, forming a prism through which her calling would become visible. As a psychology major at UNC Asheville, she knew early on she wanted to work in a profession where she could help people. Even so, the contours of her future as an advocate remained obscured.

“If you were to tell me even just a few short years ago that I would be using my own experiences of living with a disability to slowly, one day at a time, change the perception of individuals with disabilities, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Coonrod, who grew up in St. Matthews, S.C., and earned her master’s in social work in May of 2016.

She now works as a mental health therapist at Family Health Preservation Services of North Carolina in Columbus, N.C., but her reach extends far beyond her day job. Over four undergraduate years in the North Carolina mountains and two as a master’s student in the metropolitan tapestry of Charlotte — a blog evolved into a memoir and frustration evolved into determination to help others who deal with disabilities.

Amelia Coonrod

Growing Up with Cerebral Palsy

Beginning when she was 11, Coonrod endured three extensive surgeries to straighten her femurs and improve her ability to walk. The operations were coupled with years of intense physical therapy. She now sometimes wonders how, through it all, she managed to stay on track with school. She spent so much time at Shriners Hospitals for Children that she struggled to keep track of the seasons.

“If it wasn’t for the big windows, I would never know when the leaves began to change in the fall or when the flowers began to bloom in the spring,” she recalled in a blog post. “I’d never know that the world was continuing on without me while I was inside a physical therapy room wanting nothing more than to catch a fallen autumn leaf in my hand or feel the rain on my face.” Tutors were helpful in staying on track with schoolwork, Coonrod said, speculating also that “maybe I didn’t need as much sleep in those days.”

Despite the challenges posed by spending some school days in class and others in hospital beds, Coonrod values the arc of her academic progression. “All things considered, I am happy that I got the same education as the kids that I grew up with despite my disability,” she said. “Through this immersion, I learned quickly that I was different, but I also learned that in a school setting, I was treated like every other kid in my class. I was held to exactly the same standards as every other student, and I definitely know that I benefited from that.”

Blazing her own trail, Coonrod used her challenges as motivation to excel. After graduating from UNC Asheville, she was accepted into UNC Charlotte’s nationally ranked Master’s of Social Work (MSW) program. She said the program’s reputation and conversations with faculty and students convinced her the University was the place for her. Once she arrived on campus, it didn’t take long for faculty to recognize her rare combination of perspective and drive.

Gift for Helping Others

“Amelia is a passionate advocate for equal access to educational opportunity for everyone, including people with disabilities,” said MSW director Bob Herman-Smith. “She has a gift for identifying the needs of her clients and her audience. She is equally effective at comforting a bullied child and dressing down a program director about the need to infuse more disability content in the curriculum — I know that from experience.” 

It was the critical analysis of her personal experience that allowed Coonrod to channel bouts with depression and anxiety into increasingly visible advocacy efforts for those with disabilities. As a child, she was bullied because she was different. People stared. They whispered. They imitated the way she walked. In kindergarten, a girl named Ashley pulled Coonrod’s hair at recess every day and Amelia was never fast enough to run away. “It (all) made me want to curl up into a ball and hide,” she said.

Coonrod began reflecting on these experiences and her daily life as a student in 2011 in a blog called “Life in the Blue Ridges.”

“For as long as I can remember, writing has been my oxygen,” she said. “For much of life, writing has been an escape. A place that I can go when I need to get out of my head.”

The cathartic nature of Coonrod’s writing is apparent in her blog posts, but so too is a person transitioning from being the voice of one to the voice of many. The blog also reveals the naturally expressive, artistic side of Coonrod’s personality. “Songs of the Day” make frequent appearances in the form of embedded YouTube videos, and they’re often tied to a particular mood or emotion. Coonrod’s sense of self-awareness, and the extent to which her emotions overlay her approach to life, may help explain why she is drawn to help others understand themselves.

Amelia Coonrod speaks to students

From Writing to Speaking

Spurred on by an outpouring of support, two months after starting “Life in the Blue Ridges,” Coonrod began a memoir to tell her story of growing up with cerebral palsy, In 2013, she started taking her message directly to elementary and middle school students through speaking engagements on disabilities and bullying, a topic that would become the focus of her master’s thesis.

“I’ve seen her change from a girl who kept her head down and her experiences to herself into a woman who speaks up for herself and stands up for others,” said Samantha Skidmore, Coonrod’s closest friend since high school. “She used to hide her experiences with cerebral palsy, refusing to let them define who she is, but now she embraces them. They don’t define who she is; she now defines what their role in her life is.” 

“If anything, my words have become much more authentic and honest,” Coonrod noted in a blog post. “Instead of beating around the bush in terms of the emotions that I have felt and continue to feel, I have plunged right in.”

When the intensity to define one’s self meets the fluidity of where the self resides, a fog of uncertainty often emerges. There’s nothing left to do but stand still, or, as Coonrod puts it, “plunge right in.” The closer look usually yields answers.

“I’ve realized that I’ve known my place all along,” she said. “It’s to advocate for myself and others with disabilities, especially for those who aren’t able to speak for themselves. I strive to make people with disabilities realize that they are not alone and that I understand their pain and how hard it is to put up the daily fight. After all, we are the only ones who can understand what we’ve faced.”

by: Wills Citty

This feature original appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the UNC Charlotte magazine.