Knocking down obstacles

Danette Dooley
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Ashley Sullivan, 28, is in her second year of mechanical engineering at MUN. — Photo by Danette Dooley/ Special to The Telegram

When Ashley Sullivan needed a device to help her get in and out of bed, she didn’t rely on someone else to come up with it. She designed one herself.

Sullivan, 28, from Grand Falls-Windsor, has rheumatoid arthritism, a progressive autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints. She was diagnosed with it before her second birthday.

Sullivan has a degree in physics and is now in her second year of engineering at Memorial University, where she’s specializing in mechanical engineering.

And now she’s getting extra financial assistance with her studies, thanks to pharmaceutical company UCB Canada.

Sullivan is one of 16 students from across the country with rheumatoid arthritis to receive a scholarship to help with studies. She is the only winner from this province awarded the prize, worth $5,000. The company has been offering “UCBeyond” awards for the past five years.

An estimated one in 100 Canadians have rheumatoid arthritis. Women are three times more likely to get the disease than men.

It’s a crippling disease and has put Sullivan in a wheelchair for most of her life. As a child, she says, she missed out on sleepovers and school trips. Because of her mobility problems, she couldn’t just hop on a bus and go to a friend’s house after school.

“People have to go more out of their way to include you. I would need someone to help me go to the bathroom so I wouldn’t go anywhere overnight or for a long period of time.”

Even as an adult, she says, when you go to a movie or hockey game, you’re segregated from your friends and have to sit in wheelchair-designated areas.

Sullivan is involved with numerous groups on campus, including Engineers Without Boarders, Women in Sciences and Engineering and the Tetra Society of North America, where she helps design adaptive devices.

She has made devices to help herself and others turn keys in door locks, as well as a transfer board to help her get in and out of bed on her own.

“My arms don’t have the grip or length to use the standard transfer board. So, I made one that attaches more to a chair. You can flip it down to get into the bed then flip it back up again.”

After graduating with a physics degree three years ago, Sullivan took time off from her studies to recover from having both hips and knees replaced — all within the span of a couple of months.

“That was the most difficult time of my life. The pain was excruciating.”

Sullivan lives on campus, which means she doesn’t have to worry about such issues as snow clearing or inaccessible bathrooms. Memorial’s Blundon Centre is helpful to students with disabilities, she says. She also has friends on campus who help her if needed.

More than 125 students applied for a UCB Canada scholarship. Since introducing the program, the company has given about $400,000 to students living with diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy.

The Arthritis Society, Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance, JointHealth and the Canadian Rheumatology Association partnered in this year’s scholarship program.

The program encourages patients to set goals both professionally and academically.

“In 2011, we saw an increase in the number of scholarships awarded, from eight to 16, yet our jobs in selecting the recipients was exponentially more difficult,” said Dr. Michel Zummer said a Montreal-based rheumatologist who chaired the scholarship selection committee.

Sullivan is determined not to let arthritis hold her back. She’s proven through the years that, with creative thinking, there are ways to break down barriers towards accessibility. Oftentimes, it just means finding a different way to do things.

“You should never let a disease break your spirit. If you fight, you will achieve the life you want,” she said.

Organizations: Tetra Society of North America, Blundon Centre, Arthritis Society Canadian Rheumatology Association

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Christina Antle
    October 23, 2011 - 21:52

    Once again, you have amazed me with you spirit and determination. You continue to be inspirational to many people. So proud of you! Congrats Ashley!!

  • Shirley Lundrigan
    October 22, 2011 - 14:27

    What a heart warming story i really enjoyed reading it, I hope it will help a lot of people who are living with disabilitys to keep up the fight and never give up.

  • George Penney
    October 22, 2011 - 10:28

    Ashley, congratulaions on your initiative and thanks so much for your story. I, too, am a victim of RA for 25 years. Through your story I learned of the existence of TETRA. I will be contacting them with an idea I've conceived for an instrument of relief to further my own cause.