Ashley Vieira who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy earned her Physical Education credits from South Medford High School by working out with the Nintendo Wii computer game. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell

Grad heads to college, determined to succeed

Diagnosed with the most severe form of muscular dystrophy at age 5, Ashley Vieira's prognosis was she'd be on a respirator by high school and unlikely to live past her early 20s.

So far, the South Medford High School graduate, now 18, has bucked those odds.

She isn't on a respirator, and she's on her way to college, albeit not the college she'd planned on.

"I could either sit and do nothing and not get anywhere in life, or I can do as much as I can and get somewhere," she says.

With dreams of studying to become a psychologist, Vieira was accepted into the University of Oregon in Eugene and granted a U of O tuition waiver of $1,500 per year, in addition to a $2,500 Carpenter Foundation scholarship and $8,250 in state and federal grants.

But recently, family expenses drained away a $10,000 trust fund intended for Vieira's college-related expenses. Without the money, Vieira won't be able to pay for a caretaker to help her dress and shop and prepare for classes every day at U of O.

Instead of U of O, she's going to Western Oregon University in Monmouth, where she won't need a caretaker. Her older brother, Cory, 19, and his friends attend Western and will be able to help her in lieu of a professional caretaker, she says.

Vieira says chose to attend college out of the area, rather than Southern Oregon University in Ashland, in order experience some level of independence.

Her decision to go away for college has been difficult for her parents. Living with muscular dystrophy, which causes all of the muscles in the body to slowly atrophy, is daily reminder of life's uncertainties.

"We didn't even know she would live this long, so who are we to tell her not to go away to college?" says Joan Davidson, her mother.

Vieira already has overcome many challenges.

Despite using a wheelchair, she earned a regular diploma from South Medford instead of a diploma geared toward students in special education.

A regular diploma required her to earn physical education credits, but with constantly weakening muscles, there was no way Vieira could participate in regular P.E. classes. Instead, the school allowed her to earn her physical education credits by logging the hours she spent swimming in the family pool and playing Nintendo Wii Tennis.

She completed all of her academic credits and her senior project even though on some days she returned home from school too exhausted to do her homework, Davidson says.

Her siblings, Cory and 13-year-old Erin, helped prod her to keep working hard. She says they'd tease her and call her a fifth-year senior, preparing her for the merciless grief they'd give her if she didn't manage to graduate on time.

Emotionally, high school wasn't easy. The majority of students weren't understanding of her predicament, and sometimes even school employees showed insensitivity.

One example of that was when she went to the school theater to have her photo taken for her student identification card to get into school games.

The camera was set up on the theater stage, where there were no ramps on which she could roll up her wheelchair. The photographer tried to move the camera down to the seating area on ground level, but the cord wasn't long enough.

School employees finally gave up on taking her photo and had the photographer shoot the background without Vieira in the picture. They pasted the photo of the background on Vieira's student ID.

"I don't know how they thought anyone was going to let her into football games with a photograph of a background," says Davidson, laughing in retrospect. "We do have to laugh at some of these things because if we didn't we'd probably cry."

Vieira and Davidson were frustrated by the lack of consideration and went to Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long to ask him to resolve the problem. Long apologized profusely and ordered a new ID with an image of Vieira's face on it immediately, Davidson says.

Vieira remembers another time when a student volunteered to help her get to an assembly five minutes before class let out so she could drive her wheelchair through the hallway before the crowds of students came rushing through.

Before they reached the assembly, the student abandoned her to meet his friends, and she had to wait for someone else to come along and open the doors for her wheelchair to get into the auditorium, where the assembly was to be held.

But there also were acts of kindness in high school. The wood shop class made her a set of writing surfaces to use on her wheelchair, so she could leave one in each of her classes instead of carrying the one she had around the campus.

"Walking" in the graduation ceremony June 12 made all the challenges in high school worth it, she says. She rolled her wheelchair onto the stage at Spiegelberg Stadium, did a wheelie and took her diploma.

"I was so proud of her," Davidson said. "It was a very happy time to have brought her that far. For some kids, it's like, 'OK, I got my diploma,' but for her, it was 50 times more difficult."

She leaves for college around Sept. 19.

Vieira says she wants to study to become a psychologist because she has been through a lot and has empathy for other people's feelings.

"I think I'd be good at it because I have been through so much and can relate to other people and their problems," she says.

"I know the new challenges are going to be harder, but it feels good to have accomplished all that I have."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail

Share This Story