Tuskegee, Ala. resident Alice Cherry, 79, is an outpatient at UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center. As a person who uses a wheelchair, Cherry faces obstacles and challenges that many people with her condition face. What’s noteworthy is that her disability began at a time when many more obstacles existed in American society. She overcame those obstacles with sheer ambition and a positive outlook, and today she inspires others with her story.
In 1964, after completing her junior year at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), Cherry suddenly became paralyzed from the middle of her waist down due to a condition she was born with. It took her by surprise.
“I had taken a summer job in New Jersey during our school break,” Cherry recalls. “It was in July of 1964. One day I felt an extremely sharp pain in my back. What I learned at the hospital was that I had a malformation of blood vessels in my back, which had been there since birth. The formation created a clot that damaged my spinal cord. One day I was fine, the next I was almost totally paralyzed.”
Cherry also learned from the doctors in a nearby Philadelphia hospital that her condition would require extensive physical rehabilitation. The kind of care she needed was not available in Alabama then, so returning home was not an option. She found a way around that obstacle, as well as the courage to face other challenges.
“I was referred to an excellent center in Philadelphia, the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, which at that time was called the Magee Memorial Hospital for Convalescents,” Cherry says. “Their rehab program had been in existence for only six years. I had an aunt who lived there. I spent six months in very intensive rehab, learning what I would need to know to take care of myself and live with a permanent disability. Several of the patients were taking a field trip to the Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. I was reluctant to go with them. I was wondering how I could lead a normal life, never mind attend events at a baseball stadium. But my doctor came to me and said, ‘This is how your life is going to be.’ So, I went along to the ballgame and had such a good time. I’ve been going out and about ever since.”
Determined to Succeed
Getting out and about in the early 1960s was much different from how people with disabilities manage daily life today. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, designed to help ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, was only an idea then. The special physical accommodations in public and private spaces that are common today – such as ramps at building entrances and on sidewalks and wide doors and stalls in restrooms – were almost non-existent. Total accessibility was just a concept. That state of affairs had special meaning for Cherry, who is Black.
“My disability started only weeks after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Cherry says. “Help had arrived for people who had not been allowed fair and full participation in society, and I was a member of that group, when suddenly I became a member of another group who needed even more help.”
Cherry says that after rehab, she was mainly thinking about the more immediate and practical challenge of completing her education.
“I was told I should return to Tuskegee Institute to complete my degree,” she says. “My younger sister had been accepted at another college, but my dear, sweet mother urged her to go to Tuskegee instead so she would be there to help me. I wrote to the dean and told her I would need a room with its own bathroom, since the dorm bathroom had only stalls that were not wheelchair-accessible. I went from a rehab center to a college dorm right away, so it was quite a change, but my sister was my roommate. She did for me only what I absolutely could not do for myself, because she was determined to help me become independent. So many students were also supportive. They would learn my schedule and help me get to various classes. Those students were a godsend. I earned my degree in biology in 1966.”
Cherry’s next challenge was to turn her degree into a career.
“Most colleges then were not used to having students who used wheelchairs, so there were no offices set up to counsel students with disabilities about possible careers,” Cherry says. “I wondered what I was going to do with a degree in biology. While I was at Magee Rehab in Philadelphia, they allowed me in the laboratory to work with lab techs, since I was a biology student. I became friends with a woman in that department. After graduation from Tuskegee, I told her I wanted a career in a lab setting where I wouldn’t have to ask anyone to help me do the work.”
Cherry’s friend informed her of a program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia in its College of Allied Health Sciences, now the Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences & Biotechnology. This program was preparing students for careers in cytotechnology, which is the microscopic study of changes and abnormalities in body cells to detect cancer, viral or bacterial infections, and other conditions. It also managed a cytology laboratory budget, inventory, personnel, and quality assurance practices.
Cherry was ambitious enough to decide that this was the right choice for extending her education and finding a related job.
“They needed people to expand that field of study and were offering fellowships that covered tuition and provided a monthly stipend,” she says. “After I graduated from that program, the women at the school took me to job interviews. I went to the Philadelphia Naval Regional Medical Center. It was semi-accessible. At least I could get in the main building. But I would need other arrangements, so I explained the resources and accommodations I would require, and they made them to meet my needs. I was there for 25 years, working directly with pathologists for the diagnosis of cancer and any changes that might lead to cancer. I had to pass a national exam to get certified. I attended in-service training every month. Believe me, I did everything by the book and then some. In 1967, if you have a disability, and you are Black and female, you need to make sure you are top qualified in every aspect. I enjoyed the center’s military environment. There were only seven civilian employees in our lab. It was their ship – I was just sailing with them.”
Cherry had to find a new job when the base closed in the early 1990s. She notes that the federal government was closing numerous military bases around the same time that the ADA was passed.
“I was hired at a civilian facility after that,” Cherry says. “The ADA was a big step forward then but not yet in place, and a lot of these places would ignore Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which covered any place receiving federal funds or using federal contractors. At that new job, I was going to have to use the elevator to get to a floor that had access for wheelchairs in the restrooms. I was told they would begin renovations to accommodate me in one week. That one week turned into one year.”
Cherry’s work life and personal life have been characterized by determination. For example, she learned to drive a car in 1974 and had it modified with hand-driving controls and other adaptations. Today, she still drives by herself in a minivan equipped with a wheelchair ramp.
After a long and successful career outside of Alabama, Cherry relocated to Tuskegee. She has been engaged in various civic activities, church groups, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Auburn University. In 2006, she joined the AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program and served for two years as director of volunteers at the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center (now Tuskegee History Center). She encourages and inspires others at every opportunity.
“Over the years, whenever anyone has asked me how to make places more accessible, I try to offer ideas based on what I’ve learned and experienced,” she says. “I began my journey in a time where most people with disabilities struggled to be a part of the world and were almost not visible in working environments. In fact, I didn’t meet anyone who was having experiences similar to mine until 1970. And now my message to others who face difficulties is always, ‘You can do it.’”
Cherry has certainly inspired the staff at Spain Rehabilitation Center, where Physical Therapist Cathy Carver works in the Wheelchair and Seating Clinic. She assists Cherry with measurements, positioning, and adjustments that provide the best possible movement, posture, and comfort, which change over time. Carver says she was deeply impressed by Cherry’s story.
“Ms. Cherry came to us for an evaluation of her wheelchair, and it was instantly clear that she is an independent woman,” Carver says. “She shared so much with us. Through the years, Ms. Cherry has been willing to take on almost any task toward numerous accomplishments. When you consider that she first faced these physical challenges when there were so many racial barriers – as well as barriers to people with disabilities and when women had limited career options – her story is even more remarkable.”
In Cherry’s case, the learning involved with physical therapy is mutual.
“She has such a positive outlook,” Carver says. “When she mentioned to me that she was learning a lot from our instructions on managing tasks and wheelchair adjustments, I said, ‘Ms. Cherry, it’s the other way around; you need to be instructing us. If you share your story, I think we can actually learn so much from you, and in so many ways.’”