Michelle Ballasiotes ‘20, a first-year master’s degree student in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, has received the Student, Leadership, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Award from the Southern Association of Allied Health Deans (SAAHD).
Ballasiotes, who had a stroke before she was born, participated in weekly physical and occupational therapy for more than 10 years in order to gain mobility due to right hemiplegia, or paralysis on the right side of the body. She also has hydrocephalus, or an excess of cerebral spinal fluid, in her brain, resulting in having a shunt placed in her head at three days old.
Following Ballasiotes’s birth, her mother became an advocate for pediatric stroke, including starting a support group.
“From an early age, I saw her being an advocate,” Ballasiotes said. “I’ve tried to follow in her footsteps.”
Ballasiotes, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, said her experience with pediatric stroke led her to value inclusion and to work to integrate people with disabilities into the community. She has worked as a Direct Support Professional through The Arc of North Carolina to help people with disabilities achieve their goals.
“I think of myself as an empathetic person because of my experience of living with a disability, and it frustrates me when some people fail to see the potential in those who have disabilities,” Ballasiotes said. “It is my hope through becoming an occupational therapist that I can help people with a variety of disabilities have the opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest extent possible.”
Ballasiotes has sought to educate others that strokes can happen in babies, children, and teens. She has presented at medical conferences and advocated at the federal and state level to raise awareness in the community. She also created pediatric stroke Hero Bags for distribution at UNC Hospitals, which contain tools and toys to aid in the recovery of those who experience stroke. The Hero Bags often include putty, adaptive shoe laces, and finger puppets, in addition to a family guide for parents.
As part of the award recommendation process Nancy Bagatell, the director of the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, said Ballasiotes willingly shares her experiences as a person with a disability, which enriches the learning environment.
“Michelle is passionate about improving health care and increasing opportunities for people with disabilities through advocacy and education,” Bagatell said. “She is excited about doing this work as an occupational therapist. I have no doubt that she will make a significant impact on increasing inclusion and equity throughout her career.”
Bagatell also noted Ballasiotes’s service on the University’s Disability Advisory Committee, on the UNC Hospitals Stroke Advisory Board, and with Best Buddies, which supports opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“My leadership activities have helped me understand the importance of advocacy,” Ballasiotes said. “Change is not possible unless someone is willing to put forth a consistent effort and not give up. When working with my future patients, I will be an advocate alongside them.”
Ballasiotes said she has also learned from her occupational therapy cohort and professors, who each bring a variety of perspectives to coursework and to clinical care.
“My experience is only my experience. I still have so much I can learn from my classmates and from my professors,” Ballasiotes said.
Ballasiotes said she and her mother advocated for invisible disabilities—or disabilities that aren’t physically visible. She explained that her mother would often bring photos of her brain to show teachers and other educators to advocate for her daughter. She is grateful to have received recognition from the SAAHD.
“It really meant a lot that the scholarship committee saw value in my story, especially related to pediatric stroke,” Ballasiotes said.
During her time as an undergraduate student at the University, Ballasiotes studied in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Ballasiotes is the second consecutive recipient from the Department of Allied Health Sciences (DAHS) to receive SAAHD’s award. The award recognizes students pursuing a degree in a health science profession who demonstrate leadership and promotion of diversity, inclusion, and equity and comes with a $1,000 prize.
Stephen Hooper, associate dean of medicine and chair of the DAHS said Ballasiotes is a superb student who is deserving of the national award.
“I am also excited to see that she is evolving into a major change agent for the field of occupational therapy in the area of pediatric stroke,” Hooper said. “I am gratified to see that the SAAHD recognized these leadership qualities along with her strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Nancy Bagatell, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, served as a member of Ballasiotes’s undergraduate honors thesis committee and has taught Ballasiotes in the occupational therapy program. The master’s degree program in occupational therapy is ranked #10 in the country according to U.S. News & World Report. Stephen Hooper, PhD, has served as the associate dean of medicine and chair of the DAHS since 2013.