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25 April 2008
Wheelchair Warrior

By Jennifer Bacchus
News Staff Writer

Scottie O’Neal speaks to present and future social workers at JSU’s 27th Social Work Conference. Photo: Anita Kilgore

Reprinted here in its entirety.

When Dr. Mark Fagan, Jacksonville State University’s department head for sociology and social work heard Scottie O’Neal speak last August he immediately knew he had to have him speak at the department’s annual social work conference. Last week, however, O’Neal’s doctors told him he needed surgery and wanted to schedule it for the same day as the conference. O’Neal said no.

“Wednesday afternoon, my doctor said ‘You need to stay until Friday, you need another surgery’ and I said ‘I have somewhere to be on Friday,’” said O’Neal.

Fagan had chosen O’Neal for his story, that of an intelligent, capable person who happens to also be confined to a wheelchair.

O’Neal graduated early from high school. With his photographic memory, he easily aced his classes and was offered scholarships to several universities and a sponsorship to MIT. Instead of becoming the first college graduate in his family, he forged his father’s name and joined the military.

“In 1983, I attended basic training here at Ft. McClellan, Alabama. From there, I joined the special forces group at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky,” said O’Neal. In Kentucky he was asked to volunteer for the Army Rangers. “I saw 63 countries during my tours, but I only saw 22 officially. We were in places nobody ever knew we were at.”

After leaving the Rangers, he went into law enforcement, working with the state of South Carolina and the US Marshals.

In 1994, he was diagnosed with acute intermittent porphyria, a blood disease that baffled his doctors for the three years prior to his diagnosis by causing him to fall into a deep sleep for long periods of time and suffer from unexplained fevers.

“All my training in everything I’ve had, I was always trained to fight any enemy anywhere in the world and win. I’m stuck fighting an enemy that I can’t see and I have no idea when it is going to strike. There’s no pre-warning,” said O’Neal.

Though his training can’t help him win the war over his disease, it has helped with the small battles he faces every day. O’Neal is allergic to most pain medications, so he has often been awake during surgery – his Ranger training, particularly the training where he was taught what to expect if captured, has been especially useful during those situations.

In 1999, a coma – one of 72 he has come through – left his legs paralyzed. A visible reminder of his disability, O’Neal has faced the prejudices and biases of many people since that time. His message to the present and future social workers in the room was simple – the disabled are people and deserve to be treated not just humanely, but with respect.

“Some of the most astounding people I have met in my life are people with disabilities,” said O’Neal.

Despite everything he has gone through – the comas, surgeries, paralysis and temporary loss of his sight and hearing – he clearly sees the purpose for his life.

“I started going to public meetings,” said O’Neal. “I became an expert on a lot of different things. So, if you tell me no you’re going to have to tell me why you’re telling me no because I know what the law says.”

O’Neal is the executive director of Disability Solutions in Hartsville, South Carolina. He serves on several boards for disability services throughout South Carolina and the nation. During his time in the military and in law enforcement, he received several awards. Every one of them sits in a drawer in his home. His walls are decorated with more important honors.

“The little kid that sends me a letter that says ‘Thank you for fixing my ramp so now I can go to school’ and he has a little drawing of his ramp, that’s on my wall. Those things mean more to me than anything,” said O’Neal.

As he closed his remarks, he reminded the audience that everyone is one stop light, one traffic accident away from being disabled.

“Disabilities don’t discriminate. You can have more money than God, but all it takes is you leaving here today driving your car. You’re one stop light away from being me,” said O’Neal.

About Jennifer Bachus

Jennifer Bacchus is a staff writer at The Jacksonville News. She can be reached at 256-435-5021 or via e-mail at

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