Gleason was a 5-foot-11, rock solid 212-pound defensive back at the time, a world class athlete playing a gladiator's sport. Today he's 35, confined to a motorized wheelchair and, in his words, has to have "someone else wash my balls." That's thanks to an ongoing battle with the nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease — that began two years ago.
But, reminiscent of how he helped inspire a community weakened by natural disaster in 2006, Gleason today gives hope and support to a worldwide community weakened by an incurable disease. And what he does would be impossible if not for powerful technology and the digital connectivity of social media.
A product from the company Tobii lets Gleason use his eyes to control a monitor attached to his chair. He's then able to write messages — including tweets and an email interview for this article — and browse the web despite not having enough muscle function to do so manually. He's also able to move around, speak, open doors and control household appliances thanks to high-tech tools.
But he's not the only one benefitting. His foundation recently constructed the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living, a $25 million, 18-bed skilled nursing facility in New Orleans that he writes is just the second of its kind worldwide and "will allow ALS patients the same technology and level of independence I have."
Gleason also posts personal tweets, signed "SG," to the @Team_Gleason Twitter account (staff members post non-signed messages) and says social media has helped give ALS patients like himself power they never had before.
"Because of the Internet and social media ALS patients are able to share their experiences and knowledge with each other," he writes. "That has played a massive role in the ALS community. We are able to communicate efficiently on topics of treatment, equipment, technology and other resources. Prior to this, ALS patients were isolated and had to rely on their doctors or medical community for advice."
Raising money and awareness, building the high-tech house — Gleason says all that is just the beginning of what he hopes to help people accomplish.
"If we continue to fuel the conversation about ALS and put the brightest people together with the people with the right resources, it can be the most significant impact on ALS in 100 years," he writes.
"Many people and groups are working toward the same goal and collectively, we can all affect the needed change."
You can learn more about Gleason's foundation here.