A public affairs specialist with Naval Information Warfare Center Atlantic, Alex Jackson ’10 (M.A. ’14) parlays his communication skills and energy to great effect by sharing his joy for life and advocating for people with physical disabilities. 

Photographs by Heather Moran

Alex Jackson ’10 (M.A. ’14) exits his sleek, black minivan – dubbed the Batmobile for the Batman emblem affixed to the front bumper. The gravel quietly crunches as he crosses the parking lot of Folly Beach (S.C.) County Park to a pavilion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

He explains that he’s been busy the last few weeks: photographing the wheelchair division of Charleston’s annual Cooper River Bridge Run, planning for a redesign of the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic website, attending meetings for the myriad of advocacy committees on which he serves and going to no shortage of social events from church gatherings to outings with family and friends.

“I don’t like sitting still very often,” he chuckles.

Making his way up the ramp to the pavilion deck, Jackson sets up his Canon Rebel camera and starts shooting images of the beachgoers below.

“It’s really fun to sit up on top of the deck and watch everybody on the beach,” he says.

None of this might seem unusual for a guy in the prime of his life, but Jackson’s life has been anything but usual ever since a car crash left him paralyzed from the shoulders down as an infant.

With no memory of ever freely moving his arms and legs, Jackson – by conventional standards – has had an uphill climb. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t ever feel discouraged,” he says. “I just have to figure out a way to do things differently.”

Pain and Hope 

When Dr. Sherron Jackson woke up, she wasn’t sure where she was, and she couldn’t remember what had happened.

“I didn’t realize we had been in the accident,” she says.

She’d been in a coma for a month after a drunken driver on the evening of July 31, 1987, had struck her red 1985 Honda Prelude head-on as she was driving the back roads of South Carolina near the Georgia state line. She had happily spent the trip showing off her infant son during a visit with family and was returning to Charleston, where she had to get back to work as a new faculty member in the Department of Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).

As she got her wits about her, it began to sink in: She and 9-month-old Alex were hurt – badly. She had sustained a severe head injury. And crushing damage to his spinal cord had left her baby unable to use his arms or legs.

“The bittersweet part was that Alex was permanently injured. But it was still – to me – a blessing that he survived,” she says.

Driven by faith and focus, Sherron slowly adjusted to the reality of caring for an infant who couldn’t move his arms or legs, would never crawl or walk and would face a lifetime of health complications.

“It seems overwhelming, but it’s amazing what you can do when you have to,” she says matter-of-factly. “He survived. As his parents, his dad and I, the job was to carry on as we would even if he hadn’t been injured. The joy was in knowing that he survived, and he had the ability to grow and develop, even with the injury.”

The years ahead would be a roller coaster ride as Sherron and Carlton Jackson waited to see what their son would or wouldn’t be able to do. The good news was their son was unflappable.

“He was a quiet, easygoing, laid-back baby,” his mother remembers. “He didn’t cry much. He was easy to take care of, even with his injury.”

Even as an infant, he seemed patiently determined to succeed.

Alex Jackson

Alex Jackson at Folly Beach County Park. Jackson serves on the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission Accessibility Citizen’s Advisory Committee.

Beating the Odds

In some ways, being so young when his injury occurred made things a little easier for Jackson, who regained limited use of his right arm and hand. He didn’t know any other way of life.

Still, he could have easily felt he was missing out on a childhood without a disability – running around the school playground or feverishly slapping the buttons on a video game controller. But he didn’t. He just found another way.

Like, during a game of kickball, a friend would kick the ball, and then Jackson would roll around the bases in his chair. He found a way to do most of the activities at his elementary school field day each year, and at summer camp, his camp counselors would help him get into the water park pool. As a student in Charleston County public schools, Jackson attended class alongside his peers.

alex jackson taking photographs at the cooper river bridge run

Jackson taking photographs at the Cooper River Bridge Run.

“I really didn’t miss out on the social aspects of growing up,” he says. “And even if there were some challenges, we’d always figure out a way for me to still participate.”

As her son approached his teen years, Sherron, who by then was heading up MUSC’s pediatric sickle cell clinic, wondered if the natural angst of that time of life would drive her son into a funk over his physical limitations. And, with the complications of going through puberty with quadriplegia, who would blame him for being bitter?

Rapid growth in a body with weak trunk muscles due to paralysis is fraught with risk. Patients with that condition typically undergo a spinal fusion after they have a growth spurt in early puberty to stabilize the spine. Jackson had that surgery when he was around 12 years old. He continued to struggle with other complications from infections in his kidneys and bladder as his body grew, and he was in and out of the hospital into his college years.

“I thought that he might be angry that life had dealt him this blow and that he would have been resentful and focused on the things he wasn’t able to do. But it was not like that at all,” says Sherron. “He was accepting of his injury. And that just empowered him.”

Jackson credits the support of his parents for his optimistic outlook. His mother never discouraged him from setting goals. His father, Carlton, a Navy veteran who later managed a series of convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, also wanted his son to succeed and remained a central figure in his life after Jackson’s parents divorced.

“He was very business-oriented, and I believe I get my leadership skills and love for helping others from him,” says Jackson of his father, who died in 2019.

As he got older, Jackson began to realize that not everyone in a wheelchair had similar resources to navigate life.

And so, when he could, he would try to help. For example, in high school, he noticed that a fellow member of the school choir who was also in a wheelchair wasn’t attending their concerts. When he learned she didn’t have access to wheelchair-accessible transportation to attend after-school activities, he and his mother arranged to give her a ride in their van so she wouldn’t miss out.

“I knew not every student and every person with a disability had those opportunities,” he says, “so I started trying to use my ability to advocate and provide them those services and opportunities.”

Helping others only strengthened his own resolve. By the time he graduated high school, Jackson was more determined than ever to live life to the fullest.

Action Jackson

An orientation intern who greeted people as they entered Cougar Mall during the summer of 2009, Jackson was a recognizable figure on the College of Charleston campus.

“I wanted to be an orientation intern to be involved in the campus experience,” he says. “I was grateful I could share my experiences with newly enrolled students and their families, and I could also connect students with disabilities with the Center for Disability Services.”

alex jackson in the cofc radio studio

As a student, Jackson worked with CofC administrators to install an elevator in the Calhoun Annex to improve accessibility to the College of Charleston Radio studio.

Stephanie Auwaerter, director of orientation, remembers Jackson for his outgoing personality and tenacious spirit – recalling that he didn’t place limits on himself just because he used a wheelchair.

“He would do things to where the other interns realized how much he could do,” says Auwaerter, noting that Jackson was the first CofC orientation intern with physical disabilities and the first person in a wheelchair to tackle the low ropes course at James Island County Park, where the orientation interns did a team-building activity. He even drove his wheelchair onto a seesaw-like ramp and balanced it alongside his fellow interns.

Very quickly, Jackson was just another member of the orientation team.

“They wouldn’t think, Oh, he can’t do that,” says Auwaerter, adding that the other orientation interns “were just like, ‘Well, how is he going to do that?’ or, ‘We just have to adapt so he can do this or do that.’”

That quiet chutzpah propelled Jackson throughout his years at CofC, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication. Pursuing his interest in broadcasting, Jackson worked for College of Charleston Radio as an announcer, but the lack of an elevator at the radio station’s studio in the Calhoun Annex presented an obstacle. Not one to be discouraged, he worked to set up a makeshift studio in the Center for Disability Services, but he didn’t like that he wasn’t getting the full College of Charleston Radio experience. He worked with College officials to fund and install what Auwaerter calls the “Alex elevator” so he could host his radio show in the College’s official radio studio.

“That was probably the first advocacy effort that I was a part of that would help other students and myself,” he says.

Building on that momentum, Jackson continued to push for improvements to make campus more accessible to people with disabilities, including touring TD Arena, then called Carolina First Arena, to offer feedback about accessibility issues there, as well as speaking up about challenges navigating campus sidewalks.

When he wasn’t advocating for himself and others at CofC, studying or doing his radio show, Jackson spent time speaking with occupational and physical therapy students at MUSC to give insight into how he lived his daily life. On top of that, he occasionally mentored people who had recently sustained physical disabilities similar to his own – something he still does today.

All of those efforts aside, the accomplishment Jackson is proudest of achieving during his college years – besides graduating – is earning his driver’s license and getting his first adaptive van. The independence of finally being in the driver’s seat was hard-earned over six years of training, navigating bureaucracy and finding the financial resources to purchase and adapt a van to meet his needs.

Getting behind the wheel meant being the master of his own destiny. “Driving gave me the opportunity to live as normal a life as I can.”

Alex Jackson with his adaptive van

Jackson with his adaptive van.

Driving for Change

With his passion for broadcasting, Jackson had always planned to go into media – either news or radio. But after public relations internships at MUSC and NIWC Atlantic in North Charleston, he started leaning more toward a career in that field. Once he earned his master’s in corporate and organizational communication from CofC in 2014, he was ready to commit.

Since then, Jackson has worked full time for NIWC Atlantic as a public affairs specialist, doing everything from writing articles about events and initiatives at the military installation and promoting those stories to members of the media to fielding inquiries from reporters. He occasionally takes photos as part of his job, which led to his hobby in photography.

It turns out his knack for sharing information in his day job pairs well with his passion for championing better accessibility. He often appears on news programs in Charleston to talk about initiatives aimed at improving the lives of people with physical disabilities. He also uses those skills on his blog Tuesday Talk with Alex, where he writes about a range of topics from the need for better wheelchair accessibility on airplanes to hacks that make his life a little easier.

alex jackson at an event for the Gavalas Kolanko Scholarship

Jackson with Dr. Ronald Kolanko, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, Sandy Tecklenburg and CofC President Andrew T. Hsu at an event for the Gavalas Kolanko Scholarship.

And although it’s been nearly a decade since he’s been a student at CofC, he’s no stranger to campus. He has served as a judge for the College’s D.E.M.O.S. (Disability and Entrepreneurship: Models of Success) initiative to promote business models and products that are fully inclusive. He also attended the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Gavalas Kolanko Foundation Scholarship, which supports students with physical disabilities from Charleston-area colleges and of which he was a recipient.

In recent years, his desire to effect real change has grown, which is why he now serves on a variety of public boards and committees including the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission Accessibility Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the City of Charleston Commission on Disability Issues.

“I think him choosing the path of public relations, that’s definitely his calling,” says Jackson’s friend Maria Saxon, who became paralyzed in 1995 at the age of 15 after she and her family were in a car accident. “Those skills definitely benefit so many people because he’s able to get a lot of our needs and frustrations heard and addressed in a humble but professional way.”

Saxon, who serves alongside Jackson on both groups, says there’s an art to advocacy, because it’s not about complaining; it’s about addressing a need for equality.

“He’s able to communicate well what’s needed and what needs to be done, and at the same time, he’s a person with a disability communicating it,” she says.

Life isn’t all work and no play, though. Jackson and Saxon – who first met through the South Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association – enjoy exploring Charleston County parks like Folly Beach County Park and attending events like the Lowcountry Cajun Festival together and also love going to the movies and trying out new restaurants.

But even when he’s talking about his weekend plans, Jackson can’t help but mention his latest effort – raising awareness about the importance of keeping the hashmarks around accessible parking spaces unobstructed. A sign on his van reading, “Extra space needed for ramp or lift,” politely reminds drivers to leave room.

“If another car parks too close, if there’s a shopping cart in that space or a motorcycle is parked there, then that limits my ramp access, and I can’t get in or out of my vehicle,” he says.

That’s what it has always come down to for Jackson: removing as many obstacles as possible to make the most of each day.

“Just being out and about helps educate people – that’s what I enjoy most,” he says. “I’m just living life but hopefully making a difference at the same time.”