Living Well with SCI: In Their Own Words

I Hope You Dance
Dancing is “Liberty expression of the soul” to me! It allows the body to vocalize what the voice can’t put into words. Dancing for an audience simply takes that interpretation and communication to the next level. It’s like soaring on clouds of peace, while setting your audience free from judgment and life’s obstacles.

Teaching dance to youth is equipping them with tools that will break communication barriers existing between the so-called able-bodied and disabled communities. It also empowers them with self-esteem, excelling them to dimensions of strength, power and assuredness. Once people experience the awesome pleasures of witnessing these amazing gifts, they never look at the so-called disabled the same ever again. They begin to look at them with the same eyes that the individual with the disability sees themselves as…All Able!

Auti-Angel is a professional dancer, actress and singer. She co-created a performing arts program at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Southern California.

I Am Not My Chair
“Are you really in a wheelchair?” That question rolls through my head with such exhilaration. The fact that I am even asked this question means that I am accomplishing my goal of getting society to see me before they see my wheelchair.

Granted, it is tough to get anyone to see me first, as I roll around in a Colours Wheelchair made of 24-karat gold. I am surprised they can see me at all with the glare bouncing off of my wheelchair straight into their eyes.

I am the spokesperson for Overstock.com, and I star in some of their commercials. However, when I film these commercials, I am not featured in my wheelchair. I am on a set built to look like a living room and sitting on a couch just as I would be doing if I were at home. Since I was injured six years ago, I have done media for numerous reasons, but all pertaining to the “wheelchair world.” After I began working with Overstock.com, the story became “Oh my gosh! That girl in the commercial is in a wheelchair? I never would have thought that. What’s the story?”

My response: “Yes. That’s right. I am in a wheelchair.” And I am flattered that they didn’t see me as a disabled person. Or a wheelchair person. Or a handicapped person. I am flattered when people see me as just Briana.

I am not my chair. It’s taken me some time to see that myself. I am silly, courageous, rebellious, vulnerable, spiritual and strong. I think I see that more now because of my chair than I did before. My chair is now a vehicle in my life, as opposed to a prison.
Being in front of the camera doing media, I feel we in the “wheelchair world” are doing society a favor by ridding them of certain stereotypes. We continue to change the face of disability not just from hearing the word “Action!”, but through living our life the way we want to live every day for the world to see even when, ahem…the red light turns off.

Briana Walker was the cover model for Mobility Management’s September 2003 issue.

A New Perspective
Reaching milestones makes us look at life from a new perspective. I reached one such milestone on August 5, 2007. It wasn’t a professional achievement or a landmark birthday. But on that otherwise ordinary Sunday, I realized I had lived exactly half of my life in a wheelchair.

Looking back on my life to that point, I saw that my first 29 years had been spent living life to its fullest, traveling the globe, embarking on adventures, conquering obstacles and passionately challenging my limits every day. How did I spend my second 29 years? Exactly the same way! Because during that time, I was privileged to witness—and even join—other pioneers in helping change society’s attitudes and shape the evolution of mobility with Quickie chairs, providing independence, freedom and dignity for people with disabilities.

So what next? What’s my third act in life? Believing there are no coincidences and what we spend our time thinking about is what we will accomplish—I began dreaming. I realized somehow all my experiences had been building links in the chain of my life toward this moment in time. So, I started a whole new venture running my own consulting company called ENVISION—speaking, writing books and helping other businesses learn from my mistakes and principles for success.

I love that every day is a new adventure and challenge—sometimes I’m quietly reflecting and writing, other days speaking to groups, consulting on stem cell research, universal interior design or health-care issues. The most fun comes from finding ways to help others conceive, believe and achieve their dreams.
One of the greatest rewards is to give back and leave something behind in honor of the world that has helped build you!

A tennis chair used by Marilyn Hamilton, co-founder of the Quickie Wheelchair Company in 1980, is in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Effecting Everyday Change
On his recent marriage to Michelle Morse (inset), VP of program compliance & public policy for Easter Seals Tennessee: “The mayor did speak at my wedding; it was pretty cool. He quoted Churchill. We were on the grounds of the Hermitage, in Andrew Jackson’s backyard, and she pulled up in a horse and carriage. It was very Southern; it was under a tent at 7:30 in the evening. Dusk was coming, the crickets were out.

“I’ve been getting advice from everybody. It’s funny.

“I have kids; I’m a father now. I have three girls and a boy—5, 7, 10 and 12. They’re great kids, smart, good looking.”

On his work as a Nashville City councilman: “It’s been interesting. I find on the council level, you effect so much change in people’s everyday lives—if it’s a zoning matter or if sewers are installed. It affects their everyday lives. And as you go up, you get (further) away from the people. More change can be effected at this level. For instance, we put a bill in and worked with the administration, and I finally got closed captioning on (government access) channel 3, which is our cable.

“I’m a public policy junkie, so I like that stuff. I enjoy it. It’s a full-time job, for sure; it’s pretty much all my free time. Between married life and public life and work, I don’t sleep very much. But it’s cool.

“I’ve learned if you keep the people happy in your district, you won’t have any problems.”
On his political aspirations: “It depends on what opens up. I have three more years (on the city council). State representative is probably next.”

Darren Jernigan, Permobil’s director of governmental affairs, was recently elected councilman of District 11, with more than 35,000 residents, in Nashville and Davidson County.

Seeking an Industry Recommitment

After nearly 20 years of working in this industry, I have seen the participation of wheelchair users raise the level of both products and service. Each generation of wheelchair users that comes into this industry builds on what the previous group has done.

The first generation that started in the late 1970s paved the way with new ideas of what products should look like and perform. They showed us starting in the late 1980s and ’90s that we could make a difference. Previously, the only way in was to start your own business. Building on their success, we were able to serve in all levels of sales, marketing, management and engineering.

Presently, we have seen a drop in the number of wheelchair users entering our industry. Companies need to remember the contributions made and actively recruit the people who can give the personal insight into product and service. As a T12 paraplegic since 1983, I think we do need a recommitment on the part of the suppliers, manufacturers and clinicians to include persons with disabilities in our industry.

Mark Schmitt, director of sales & marketing for Altimate Medical, narrates Altimate’s Life After SCI educational DVD.

This article originally appeared in the SCI Handbook: October 2008 issue of Mobility Management.

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