Every college student struggles, but so few actually have a disability that makes their daily life harder than usual. Christine Ballart, 31-year-old of Miami, FL, was born with a disability called spina bifida.
Spina bifida is a birth defect in which a developing baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly and can limit upper and lower body movements. As a result, it can cause no feeling or movements in the lower extremities.
Ballart is currently a Senior at Florida International University where she is studying psychology and sociology. She tries to keep a positive mindset as much as she can. Just like every other college student, she keeps up with her homework, attends lectures and makes time for friends; she doesn’t let her disability define or stop her.
Brittany Sims: Have there been any setbacks or challenges in your life that deterred you from doing something because you have spina bifida?
Christine Ballart: My diagnosis is spina bifida and hydrocephalus, which is extra water in the brain that requires a shunt surgery. With the exception of having over 30 surgeries, my only setbacks have been trying to learn things in school at a fast pace and many hospital stays. I’ve had to miss a lot of school because of it.
BS: You mentioned that you had over 30 surgeries. Have any of them helped and will you need any more?
CB: I’ve had everything from surgery for lazy eyes to knee and ankle release to 14 shunt revisions (shunts block the flow of cerebral spinal fluid). Many of my surgeries have helped to make my life as good as it can be.
Will I need more? Possibly. But for now, I’m pretty stable, which is great!
BS: What has made you go to college at 31 years old? Was there anything that made you go this late?
CB: Well, yes and no. Yes because, due to health issues, I missed a lot of class in high school which made me have to repeat a year so; I graduated a year later than I was supposed to. Then, the same thing happened when I was going for my associate’s degree.
I missed so much class due to health issues from my spina bifida that I spent seven years there. Now I’m about a year and a half away from completing my bachelor’s, but my health setbacks have kept me from being healthy enough to pass some of my classes with more than a C.
BS: Does your major in psychology/minor in sociology have anything to do with you having your disability?
CB: I wanted to study psychology because I want to be a Child Life Specialist, which is basically someone who works in children’s hospitals teaching children and their families about the various procedures/surgeries that they will be going through to make them feel less anxious. They do this through age-appropriate medical play.
When I was younger, I remember being so afraid to go into the operating room that I was screaming and crying. They would bring a Child Life Specialist into the O.R. with music to help calm me and hold my hand until I fell asleep. Even at 31, I still have a fear of the O.R., so I always ask to be put to sleep before they take me in. That is the way I cope now.
BS: What additional challenges do you face as a college student with spina bifida that other students may not face?
CB: I can list a whole bunch, but one thing is my learning disability. Due to hydrocephalus, I learn at a slower pace and don’t comprehend all of the material that’s being thrown at me. When I ask questions, it virtually makes me look like an idiot.
I normally say that the answers sound better in my head than out loud, so I stray away from raising my hand unless the subject interests me. Being a student with a disability, I don’t think the other students understand that some things are harder for me.
BS: What makes you happy when times are tough?
CB: Listening to music and going to concerts always make me happy, especially Mark Ballas and BC Jean (Alexander Jean), Derek Hough (“Dancing with the Stars”) and Hanson, to name a few. I also love talking on the phone with my best friend and hanging out with her and her son.
I like to go out to eat with my mom or go shopping. Going to the movies is another favorite of mine. I love reading different books that interest me, especially Derek Hough’s, “Lessons From a Life in Motion.”
BS: What is your biggest pet peeve that regards able-bodied people?
CB: I have quite a few. My number one pet peeve is when people park in a disabled spot and don’t need it. Sure, people have invisible disabilities, but if you don’t have a limp or a ramp for a wheelchair or a walker, please don’t park there.
The second is people who are walking and just stop in the middle without moving over so other people can pass. I can’t stand when people who lean on my wheelchair. I am a person, not something you are allowed to rest on.
Also, in restaurants, if you have a purse or a bag of whatever kind, please don’t hit me or my chair with it. If you are a student and have a wheelchair sitting in front of you in class, don’t kick the chair if you move your legs/feet. I understand that you need leg space but there are other ways you can move so you have the leg space you need without hitting the person in front of you.
BS: How do you stay so positive through everything you have been through?
CB: I’ve been through so much in my life that people ask me this very question all the time. I honestly feel like I have to stay positive regardless of the situation. Like I said before, I’ve had over 30 procedures and surgeries; I feel like I basically have no choice but to be positive through it all.
It definitely is hard, but I’ve come to understand that this is my life. There will always be good and bad days. I’ve just had a weird share of both.
BS: Anything else you would like to add that you would want others to know? Any advice for anyone who is going through the same thing?
CB: I would like to add that people with disabilities aren’t much different from an able-bodied person. Yes, we get around differently (some with walkers, others with wheelchairs or power chairs), but we can do the same thing any able-bodied person can do.
I went to a wheelchair sports camp growing up, where I won many medals, and I played basketball, soccer, tennis, archery and track & field — and we did it all in our wheelchairs. I have even modeled for Kids ‘R Us when I was a child and a professional shoot for the organization “Bold Beauty” when I was older.
They feature women of different backgrounds and disabilities to be featured in their annual campaign. I have had the opportunity to meet many celebrities.
My point is that any able-bodied person can play sports, model and have adventures standing on their two legs, but people who have disabilities can do all of that, just differently.