College student with disability picks himself up after tough start

Last in an occasional series on Ryan Ballou's life at college

EDINBORO, Pa. -- If Ryan Ballou takes one lesson away from his past year of college, it would be this: If you don't get yourself out of bed in the morning and attend all your classes, it's going to be a short -- and painful -- ride off campus.

That, and keep the seat belt on your wheelchair fastened.

Caught up in all his newfound freedom, Ryan did none of the above at Edinboro University last year. As a result, the Ben Avon resident ended up not only falling out of his electric chair on two occasions, requiring trips to the hospital, but he also took a downward spin in the classroom.

Yet while his body recovered, his grades did not. He failed his freshman year and, in the process, lost most of the state funding that pays for his special services.

"I guess I just didn't understand the consequences," he acknowledges.

It was an unexpected end to a year that started in September 2006 with so much promise and excitement. Born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a terminal genetic disease that robs the body of muscle function, Ryan wasn't sure he'd be able to go away to college. Then he heard about Edinboro, which is ranked among the nation's top 10 universities for its services for students with disabilities.

That sorry string of Fs, though, put it all in jeopardy. Would he be allowed to return? More important, did he even want to?

This summer, after much soul searching, several heated discussions and a lot of promises, Ryan decided he did. And luckily, the university and his father, Ty, believe in second chances. He returned to Edinboro this fall as a third-semester freshman, on academic probation.

"My dad and I did a lot of talking about what I should do, and he pretty much told me this was my last chance," says Ryan, 20. "If I fail again, that's it."

"I convinced him that Option B -- me, home and working -- was horrible," says Mr. Ballou. "Edinboro is where he needs to be."

A different direction

Self-examination is never easy, especially when you're young. Yet Ryan realizes that he's going to have to dig deep into his psyche and make some serious changes if his second try at college is to be successful.

Last spring, Ryan's resident assistant, whom Ryan has known since he was little, guessed his problems might stem from an inability to come to terms with his disability, and the fact he never got involved in clubs and other activities.

Ryan adamantly disagrees. While he's had trouble in the past dealing with the physical limitations of the disease -- and the fact of his mortality -- he believes he has long since placed it.

"You could try to search deeper, but here's what I think," he says. "Sometimes I'm a lazy person. So if the option is between getting out of bed and being tired or sleeping, I'm going to go with sleeping."

In the past few months, he says with a smile, he has learned to fight that urge.

Rather, the biggest obstacles last year were the people he was hanging out with, coupled with too much freedom. Most of his friends were only too happy to blow off class, and Ryan -- who hated the classes required by his marketing major -- simply followed their lead. The only kid with transportation on the first floor of Scranton Hall, where all the wheelchair-bound students are clustered, he also made far too many trips to Wal-Mart and the movies in his personalized van.

On the right track

This semester, he's more disciplined. He still stays up until the wee hours of the night, socializing and playing video games. But knowing how much trouble he has getting up in the morning, he scheduled all of his classes after lunch. He's also eliminated the many off-campus trips. But mainly, he says, he learned that he can't let other people influence him as much.

"I realize they can do whatever they want to do, whatever their priorities are," he says. "But I have my priorities, and that's trying to get through college and getting a degree and eventually getting a job."

He's also changed his major from business to communications. He had to take one last economics class to get his GPA back up to the 2.0 he needs to get full funding from the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. But everything else is stuff he is actually interested in -- including public speaking and psychology.

The effort has paid off, both in the classroom and emotionally. When midterm grades came out earlier this month, he had earned an A, a B and a C. The only real disappointment, he says, was a D in macroeconomics. (He's immediately asked his professor for help.)

"I don't know if any student takes it as seriously as you want them to," says his father, "but he is doing better."

Economics grade aside, Ryan remains upbeat.

"I'm actually doing what you're supposed to do when you're in college," he says with little-disguised pride, "which is work and study. That's my priority."

The challenge now is seeing how long his body will cooperate.

The most severe of the nine types of muscular dystrophy, Duchenne robs people like Ryan not only of their ability to walk but, ultimately, to breathe without the help of a ventilator. Their heart muscles are also weakened, putting them at risk of a heart attack. Survival is rare beyond the early 30s.

Thanks to an experimental drug called Calcort, Ryan is better off than many youths his age with Duchenne in that he can still lift his arms and enjoys dexterity in his fingers and hands. His breathing, which he had checked over the summer by a specialist at Ohio State University Medical Center, has remained stable.

Ryan has noticed, however, that he's gotten a bit weaker in his arms, making it a little harder for him to drive.

"But it's a slow process," he says.

Whatever his future holds, his father is convinced that Edinboro is where he should be -- even if it means giving up much of the little time they might have left together.

"I probably push him harder than anyone," says Mr. Ballou, "but it's because he has made me see life better than anyone."

Ryan, he says, may live four more days or 40 more years. "I want him to treat it like it's four more days and live his life fully."

Gretchen McKay can be reached at or 412-263-1914. First Published November 13, 2007 5:00 AM


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