Photo by the Star-Ledger, Newark NJ

Ashley Lauren Fisher is a self-described “bitch on wheels” who revels in continual retransformations of Pazzo Pazzo, her four-star restaurant, into whatever tickles her fancy. One year, as Michael Thorne, her general manager and right-hand man can attest, the restaurant was turned into an old-timey saloon for Halloween, then morphed into a Harry Potter scene complete with grapevines and winter lodges for Christmas, and recast with love shacks for Valentine’s Day. Pazzo means “crazy” in Italian, and Fisher’s energy and imagination is the best kind of crazy. “Ashley is a powerhouse, says Thorne. “She is always coming up with new ideas, constantly challenging me. We transform the restaurant five to 10 times a year.”

Fisher laughs when I ask her about referring to herself as a bitch on wheels. “My mom is English and has been using that British idiom to describe me long before I was ever in a wheelchair!” The saying originated around the 1960s and is meant to describe a forceful person who asserts herself to a large, unending degree. Fisher has always been that way. “I came out of my mom full force — running, dancing, playing lacrosse. I was moving nonstop and into everything. I wanted to try it all.”

She still does. Sixteen years after experiencing a C4-5 spinal cord injury that only briefly dented her undaunted spirit and drive, Fisher is not only co-owner/operator of Pazzo Pazzo, she is also parent to the children of her significant other of 10 years, taking classes in acting, pursuing a second career in entertainment, and juggling life as a 30-something woman — all with a literal flick of her wrist and a couple of biceps — the only muscles her accident actually left her able to use.

At the time of the accident, she had already made the most of her myriad talents. She was modeling, studying her craft, and auditioning regularly. A job managing a restaurant part-time to support her burgeoning career had led to a romantic relationship with established businessman, Larry Berger, that in turn led the pair to open Pazzo Pazzo, in Morristown, N.J., in 1996, when Fisher was just 21.

Like pretty much all of her passions, this one also found its roots in her upbringing. “I really like food, all kinds of food from chili-cheese fries to the finest gourmet steak au poivre. That love comes from my mom. She made all kinds of dishes, from curried goat to twice-baked potatoes. We also travelled around the world and I got to try a lot of different dishes.”

By 1998, Fisher’s love of food, combined with her innate intelligence and growing business acumen, had turned Pazzo Pazzo into the kind of success that was beginning to pay off. “I was able to travel more, work in the restaurant less, audition more and go play occasionally,” she recalls. “I was happy, independent and pleased with my life. I did not have to call my dad for money to pay my insurance. My life was in working order. Then the unthinkable happened.”

Confronting the Stereotype
Fisher had gone home from Pazzo Pazzo planning to spend the day with her family when one of her best friends from high school started teasing her about forsaking her Jersey Shore Girl persona. To prove her wrong, she changed her plans and headed to the beach that day instead.

She had spent most of her adolescent summers at the shore, kickin’ it with friends or working as a lifeguard. She was a strong swimmer and knew the water well — not well enough as it turned out. “We were out in deep water with me on another friend’s shoulder diving under the waves as they rolled in. We weren’t hitting bottom. Just waves. I’d done it a thousand times that way with no problems. That last time, I just hit the water wrong for some reason and heard a pop. I knew immediately that I’d broken my neck. He let me float face down for a few seconds, then turned me over and laughed, ‘do you need mouth to mouth?’ I told him my neck was broken and that he needed to get me out of the ocean!”

Ashley-8Initially she was told she would never move from the neck down again, and would likely be on a ventilator for the rest of her life, but after spending nearly a year completely bedridden and another in intensive physical therapy, she was able to dispense with the ventilator altogether. She slowly regained her vocal ability, then went on to recover enough bicep and right wrist movement to control her chair as well as operate electronics. She says the physical aspect of this process was less grueling than the emotional one.

“It felt like everyone else in the world was continuing as if nothing happened, while I was just trying to figure out how to sit up and breathe again.” Friends and family were surprised she wasn’t more angry about what had happened. “I wasn’t angry, I was hurt. I was in pain — more emotional than physical. I can handle physical pain. But emotionally I could not grasp why God would make me an attractive 5-foot-10-inch tall, talented, athletic, hard-working young woman just to take it all away.”

The drastic change was what distressed her most. “Society sees people with disabilities as damaged. We are ‘the other.’ I had been student body president, an athlete, studied classical piano with Assuntina Giorgio and played in both Carnegie Recital and Steinway Hall. I danced 10 years with the New Jersey Ballet and was an accomplished lacrosse player. I was co-owner of a successful restaurant and my career in entertainment was ready to explode. I wasn’t ready to be one of them.”

In high school she had befriended a boy with mental deficits and was very close to him. She understood what he went through, and when she broke her neck, she realized she did not want to have to persevere through the same kind of treatment. “My life had been about constantly breaking stereotypes,” says Fisher, whose mother was a British immigrant and father was a Jamaican transplant. “Am I black or white? I’m not just the pretty girl, I’m an athlete and a scholar. When I broke my neck I was figuratively and literally being put into molds — molds for my wrist, a mold for my chair to hold me in place, molds for my fingers and my neck. But the hardest mold to break was that idea about what it means to be physically disabled. It is this scarlet letter (D!) that is supposed to define you.”

But Fisher was never one to be defined by others. So when Berger came to her and told her Pazzo Pazzo was not doing that well, she realized life did not just go on without her. Now her ‘baby’ was suffering. “Larry is a great business partner, he and I think alike. It is not about privilege or what is in front of you, it is about what you do with it. My parents taught me that you can do anything if you try. I knew I had to try.”

Today, Pazzo Pazzo is not only well established, but thriving. Fisher, a finalist for the New Jersey Restaurant Association’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2012, was awarded the NJRA Gold Plate Award for outstanding service and achievement in the food service industry the same year. And Larry Berger maintains a close business and personal relationship with her even though their romance ended years ago.

Her Roots
Fisher’s drive to succeed at whatever she does is rooted in her upbringing. Her mother, Marquesita, and father, David, had high expectations and strong beliefs about the value of experience, but Ashley has especially been influenced by her mom. “In my living room growing up we had a giant wooden cable spool as our table. My mom put a piece of glass on it and a nice tablecloth because that is all we could afford. But on the table were books about art, philosophy, and religion. In the kitchen there was no elegant, marble dining table, but there were cookbooks and family recipes. It wasn’t about what the table was made of. I was taught that what really mattered was what was on that table and what you did with it!”

Her parents came to the United States after meeting in London because they believed kids who were American had more opportunities. “My parents mortgaged the house so my brother and I could take lessons. They believed in hard work and making the most of your talents, whatever they are.”

But in the late 1970s there was still a great deal of prejudice in the United States. Ashley was called “white-nigger” as a child but didn’t care. “I was taught it takes no courage to use harmful words. So I tried not to let it get to me. If the words escalated to pushing, I pushed back. I didn’t grow up in some fancy fairytale.”

Ashley’s mom was supportive of her dreams but also very strict. Her motto was “If you are going to do it, you must do it right.” So a life of countless lessons began: Ashley started ballet and piano at 5 and went on to study dance, music, lacrosse, equestrian, and modeling for the next 17 years. She tried almost everything. “I wanted to be that girl — to sing, dance and be a star. I wanted it all!”

Her Personal Life
Fisher also wanted a family. James Zukowsky, her significant other of nearly 10 years, is grateful for that. “I met her at the restaurant. I was entertaining clients and I caught a glimpse of her in the distance. Then I was introduced to her and it was wow — I was stunned by her grace and beauty.”

It started with movies and a bite to eat. Eventually Zukowsky invited her to his shore house for the July 4th weekend. He laughs, “I did not think about it (her disability) when I invited her. Her beauty, charm and vibrant personality are so intoxicating it is easy to overlook the chair. Then I realized I did not have a walkway to get to my deck. So I spent the first half of the day building a ramp so she could access my place with ease. Best thing I ever did!”

That weekend was the first of many. It was not long before weekends turned to living together. “It wasn’t always easy,” admits Zukowsky. “Our highs are really high and our lows can be tough, but we find the balance. We can’t walk on the beach, but there are so many other amazing things that go unseen and are unrecognized. People always focus on the obvious and lose sight of what is truly important. I do not think I could find someone who is so ‘on point’ with me. She does it so well. Sometimes it is too much. It’s taxing on her and she gets tired and upset, but she steps back and comes back on top. There is no one else I want to go down a dark alley with. Standing or sitting, she is the one person you want on your side.”

Fisher has helped raise Zukowsky’s three kids since the youngest, Zachary, was still in diapers. “When Zachary first tried to use a cell phone, he dialed it with his knuckles like I do,” laughs Fisher. “Kids are so great. They see the chair and will ask about it, then they move on to what color do you like. Kids are just being themselves.”

Zachary not only picked up his dialing technique from Fisher, he also learned the basic skills of lacrosse from her — his first time out he made one of the most prestigious club teams on the East Coast. “She worked with him one to two hours a day,” says Zukowsky. “They would practice against the wall and she would give him insights into the fundamentals.”

Fisher loves watching Zachary play but admits, “It is probably one of the most courageous things I’ve done. I want to be out there playing with him physically. It is hard to only do it verbally, but I have to let it go. You can’t live with the what-if’s or if-onlys. You have to focus on what is. It’s different but I am still a part of it.”

Although Fisher has turned down three offers to make a reality show of her life, she hopes her platform as a NMEDA spokesperson (see sidebar, page 24) can help bring attention to the little things that can be changed to create a big difference in the lives of people with disabilities — “the small conveniences that others take for granted,” she says. “Good theater seats, enough parking, access for a family of four to sit together. These things can make a difference. There is so much more than just not being able to walk.”

She also wants to make a difference on the big screen. “I’m a woman, a mom, a friend, a lover, a restaurateur, and more. I’d like to get a role because I’m an actress. I’d like casting directors and producers to think beyond the chair to the talent.”

If anyone can do it, Ashley Lauren Fisher can.

Official Spokesperson for Mobility Awareness Month

2014 is the third year that the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association is sponsoring National Mobility Awareness Month. Ashley Lauren Fisher is a spokesperson for the May event, in which four 2014 fully-equipped adaptive vans will be given away in an online contest. This year one MV-1, one Chrysler minivan, and two Toyota Siennas will be donated to one caregiver, one senior, and two others with disabilities. Each vehicle will be custom-equipped to fit the individual winner. Entrants must go to www.mobilityawarenessmonth.com to fill out an entry form.

The theme of the contest is Life Moving Forward. Each entrant will be given an opportunity to submit either a story and photograph or a two-minute video, in which they describe why they are deserving of being a “Local Hero” who embodies the Live Moving Forward theme. Last year not only were four winners chosen, but at least eight additional “non-winners” went on to secure funding through their local communities to purchase adapted vehicles. In all, 12 of 1,225 contestants received new vehicles, which is a heck of a lot better odds than winning a lottery.

“We are all impacted by disability,” says NMAM spokesperson Fisher, who personifies the Life Moving Forward theme. “Everyone is somehow connected to someone living with a disability. NMAM helps bring that awareness that disability is a part of life, and mobility is the key to providing access to a full quality life. Everyone is dealing with illness or disability on some level. We need to take it out of tragedy mode and into reality.”

The story submission period began late in February and continues through to May 9. Voting began March 11 and ends May 9. Winners will be contacted May 30 and announced in June.

Not Your Typical Boss

Ashley Lauren Fisher shares a laugh with the Pazzo Pazzo staff.

Ashley Lauren Fisher shares a laugh with the Pazzo Pazzo staff.

When Michael Thorne, Pazzo Pazzo’s general manager met Fisher, “I was working at a local restaurant and she was a frequent guest. I thought she was such a strong-willed person — the way she carried herself — she had this aura. I was unhappy with my job, and after I got to know her, she took me out for a movie to cheer me up. We talked and it led to a temporary position and then a permanent position, which led to my current executive position. We’ve worked together for over 12 years now. Ashley is super-caring about co-workers, people in the restaurant and her friends.”