A photo of Zac Zies

Zac Zies was only in first grade when he was handed a heartbreaking diagnosis: a rare neuromuscular disease known as Fredreich’s ataxia.

It is an inherited genetic disorder that results in progressive nervous system damage. It typically emerges in childhood and leads to impaired muscles coordination that worsens over time.  

At that point, the 7-year-old was walking, playing soccer, on a swim team and riding bikes with friends. But soon his condition began to rip away at his mobility. By the time he reached sixth grade, Zies was in a wheelchair.

“It was awkward for people because one day you’re walking and the next you’re in a wheelchair,” he said.

As he grew up, Zies watched his father and grandfather work in business or run their own.

“I knew I had a passion for this field,” Zies said of business. “I also have had to hire and fire people since I was 16 years old. I have hired my own personal care aides and learned some of the essentials of both excellent and trustworthy employees, as well as those unable to meet job expectations.”

As the years passed, logistics became a focus of his — evolving from his interest in puzzles and putting things together.

Fast forward to today: Zies is looking forward to graduating in May with a BSBA and a specialization in logistics. He credits his Fisher experience — the high-quality nature of his education, opportunities to grow as an inclusion leader and support he received from his professors — for having a major impact on his success.   

One of those professors was Steve DeNunzio, who taught Zies in two logistics classes.

“What impressed and inspired me the most was his positive attitude and sense of humor,” said DeNunzio, a senior lecturer in the Department of Marketing and Logistics. “Someone battling a disease like he his could very easily withdraw or feel sorry for themselves.  Zac was always there in class, with a smile on his face, ready to learn.”

“Professors have thousands of students through their careers, and frankly we don’t remember them all. Zac is one of those students I’ll always remember fondly.”

Ohio State has also offered important assistance. Zies received student support from the William M. and Frances Smith Junk Endowed Fund, which was established to support disabled students living at the Creative Living Facility, his home for the past five years as a Fisher student. The facility provides housing and support for individuals with physical challenges.

A leader for inclusion

Zies’ condition has advanced over the years, but it has not stopped him from becoming a strong advocate and leader for inclusion.

In 2019, he attended the Disability:IN Conference in Chicago, which was hosted by a nonprofit organization focused on disability inclusion in business. The event provided Zies with access to career skills and job interviews.

“I was able to network with company leaders who are committed to inclusion and retaining talented individuals who have a disability,” he said.

Zies joined a competition within the event, which challenged participants with developing an app to help those with disabilities. His team came in second place for an app designed to connect disabled individuals with information, services and community resources.

He has also served as a speaker for a number of disability-related organizations, including the Assistance Dogs of America.

“I would go to schools, churches and civic groups and tell others about what an assistance dog does to help others,” he said.

His advocacy ties back to his own dog, Zane, whom he received in the sixth grade.

“I had him for 10 years,” Zies recalled. “He would open doors for me, pick up items that I dropped; he could pull my laundry basket and even open my refrigerator to get me a drink.”

Throughout his life, he has also helped raise funds for the Friedreich's Ataxia Research Alliance, a patient advocacy group that works with the scientific community and drug companies to find a cure for the disease.

“There are now several promising drugs under development in clinical trials with the hope of finding a treatment soon,” he said.

Looking ahead

The condition continues to attack his physical abilities, creating consistently tougher uphill battles — but it can’t touch his resolve. Upon graduation, Zies hopes to work in a supply chain role at the Walgreens distribution center in his hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio.

And he’s going to use his business acumen gained at Fisher and the networks he’s continuing to build to achieve that goal.

“I’m going back to Disability:IN for more networking,” he said. “This year, it’s in Florida, and getting a job is all about networking and knowing who’s who.”

While Zies’ hard work and perseverance in the face of long odds may inspire others, Zies credits his father, who has found success in business, as his inspiration.

“I saw firsthand how hard work and perseverance are good for business, good for management and good attributes for any employee,” he said.

Professors have thousands of students through their careers, and frankly we don’t remember them all. Zac is one of those students I’ll always remember fondly.

Steve DeNunzioSenior Lecturer, Department of Marketing and Logistics