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From Stroke Survivor to Scholar

The following article was written for UCF Today News and is shared with permission. Johnson Scholarship Foundation works in partnership with the Student Accessibility Services office at UCF and all the schools in the State University System of Florida to provide scholarships to students with disabilities. 

In her final semester at UCF, Alex Dixon was finally able to complete a task that most college students take for granted: reading a textbook on her own. For the graduating early childhood development and education major, walking across the stage for commencement with her peers this summer seemed like it would take a miracle a decade ago, instead of her consistent hard work.

When Dixon was 10 she caught pneumonia, which triggered a rare malfunction that caused her brain to start attacking her body. She recovered from the infection, but continued to battle pain, muscle spasms, contortions and loss of function for two years as she visited specialists around the country who could not figure out what was wrong. By the time she entered sixth grade she started to use a wheelchair. At 12, she underwent a deep brain stimulation procedure as a last hope to find a solution, but while she was anesthetized she had a stroke.

“It was incredibly frightening,” says Juli, Dixon’s mother and a professor of mathematics education at UCF since 2000. “The stroke damaged the part of her brain that was killing her, but there was quite a bit of collateral damage as well. As she was coming out of her coma, we were told she might be in a vegetative state. It’s been very slow progress over time, but she returned.”

Alex Dixon holds her graduation mortarboard bearing the words "teachers change the world" and "class of 2021."That collateral damage includes being partially paralyzed on her right side and legally blind — able to see only half of anything straight on. Before Dixon became ill, she was a happy, healthy child who took gifted classes, played piano, loved art and wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. After her stroke, she had to relearn every aspect of her life, from normal bodily functions and academics to who she even was. It was in that relearning process that Dixon found an interest in teaching.

“I want to work in a preschool setting with students with and without disabilities and special needs, hopefully in an inclusive setting,” Dixon says. “The first few years of life are so valuable to build a base of the education and play so kids are excited about learning and develop the positive mindset toward it that will help them persevere later on.”

With the support of her family and her own determination to improve, she slowly regained functions such as walking, talking, and completing schoolwork. Throughout middle school and high school she had an aide help her get to and from classes and help her complete her assignments. When Dixon came to UCF in 2016, she no longer needed an aide, but throughout her time here she’s used Student Accessibility Services for support.

“They helped me be as independent as possible,” Dixon says. “I still had trouble reading in the beginning and even now sometimes, so they gave me different technology, like reading software on my computer. They helped me get a notetaker and smart pen to capture what my professors were saying, a reader for tests and extra time if I needed it. It gave me the opportunity to show what I knew because I had the resources.”

Read the rest of Alex Dixon’s story at UCF Today.


Nicole Dudenhoefer is a content producer for UCF Marketing and a 2017 journalism graduate of UCF.

VIA’s Statler Center Trains People for Heroic Work

You never know where you might find a hero – perhaps a person who provides the right help in hard times.

For thousands of people who called for help last year to 211 in Western New York, the heroes on other end of the line were individuals who had trained at the National Statler Center. The National Statler Center is the educational and employment arm of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner.

The stories they heard covered every difficulty imaginable, but amplified by the pandemic – a man needing rent assistance as a landlord threatened eviction, a 22-year-old pregnant woman out of work and out of money, a senior whose water heater quit working, a deaf woman trying to leave an abusive spouse.

211WNY has been a program of VIA for about a decade. About half to three quarters of the information specialists answering the phones are blind or visually impaired. Last year during the pandemic, call volume to 211WNY almost doubled to nearly 82,000, said Renee DiFlavio, Sr. Vice President, Development of VIA. Providing the information that callers need to link them to services is a special skill executed with assistive technology and trained listening skills.

“Certainly if you’re visually impaired, there are many jobs you can do, but call center work is a great job because of the tele-technology,” DiFlavio said. “What’s also interesting is that it might be a model eventually for people to hire people who are blind or visually impaired to work those jobs.”

a woman seated at a computer

Sharell B., a Statler Center graduate, working at the 211WNY Call Center.

Many of the people on the end of the phone lines assisting callers learned their skills at the National Statler Center. The center offers programs for training in several fields, including customer service, hospitality, food prep, software applications, and communications.

“All of the work stations have adaptive technology with a dual-input headset,” said Ray Zylinski, Assistive Technology Instructor at VIA. “You’d hear the caller in one ear, and the computer audio in your other ear. It’s not something everybody can do. You’re essentially absorbing information from two different audio sources at once.”

People who work for 211WNY become adept at entering key words related to a caller’s issue to find human service agencies that could provide the caller with assistance.

More than 100 people have gone through the technology program at VIA’s Statler Center. While some work for 211WNY, others are in jobs with companies throughout the area, the result of the placement specialists at VIA, Zylinski said.

“Statistics show that a very high percent of individuals with low vision who can find employment don’t leave that job, so the attrition rate is significantly low,” Zylinski said. “That hits employers in their wallet, and then they tend to listen.”

That ability to listen is what made heroes of VIA’s assistive technology and referral specialists when so many people were in need of help.


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation