The Abilities Expo is an event that I have wanted to attend forever but travel and time always came into play. This year has been different in so many ways and I was finally able to attend because like many other aspects of our lives… it was virtual. I had a great experience with the Abilities Virtual Experience that was held November 20-22, 2020. It was organized in a way that allowed early access to the exhibit hall, workshops, events, product demonstrations, speakers, and live host schedule so I could plan ahead of time and save everything to my personal agenda.
I spent a majority of my time in the exhibit hall, which was extremely informative, fun, and very easy to navigate. I already knew some specific companies that I wanted to visit, but it also allowed an option to search the exhibit hall by means of keywords, categories, and an alphabetical directory. An aspect of the exhibit hall that I found extremely beneficial was all of the resources that were available after you selected any of the companies or organizations. Many of them offered brochures, a video library, a listing of the staff, and an option to chat with a representative from that specific booth. I was impressed and I did not leave any of the booths at the exhibit hall feeling like I could not find information that I was looking for.
I also spent some time on the live host channel, which was hosted by Paul Amadeus Lane, who is a radio personality, tech vlogger, and an Abilities Expo ambassador. I watched a great interview with the President of Permobil, Chuck Witkowski. It was a very informative session where new product launches and upcoming technologies were discussed. The live host channel also had various dance performances, comedy routines, and musical numbers.
Last but not least, another great aspect of this event is that everything was still available to access until December 13. I have taken advantage of this option and I revisited the Abilities Virtual website to watch events that I was unable to watch live. Overall, the entire experience was fun, interactive, and extremely informative. Also, it is an event that I would not have been able to attend unless it was offered virtually. All of these great resources were available right at my fingertips! One of the many things that I have learned about this amazing community of people who have a SCI/D, is that we know how to adapt to an ever changing and challenging world, and I am extremely proud to be a part of that community. The Virtual Abilities Expo reiterates this because they adapted and created an event that could reach an even wider audience. My suggestion for anyone that attends any future Virtual Abilities Expos such as this is to register as soon as you can, watch the walk-through video, and check everything out ahead of time in order to create a schedule specific to what you are looking for… and have fun!
Click HERE to see dates for upcoming Abilities Expos!
No, it is not how many years my parents have been married.
No, it is not my lucky number.
Yes, it is the number of job applications I have filled out over a period of two months.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and I wanted to share some of my employment journey experiences in order to raise awareness and help others see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those of us with a disability to find employment. I just recently started my position at the United Spinal Association as the Grassroots Advocacy Manager. It is a perfect fit for me. It is something I am passionate about. I get to work from my fully accessible home office, and I feel like I am truly helping others and making a difference. I strongly believe that this opportunity was presented to me due to the culmination of many factors.
Working at United Spinal was not even in my radar a year ago as I was clicking my way through multiple job sites, writing cover letters, tweaking my resume, and doing everything I could to get it past that first step and actually into the hands of an employer. I used career counseling, job placement companies, networking, and career services through my college. I was struggling with finding employment not because I did not have the proper education, work ethic, or skills. I was struggling because I am a C5 quadriplegic and at the time of my search for employment, working from home was considered to be a burden for many companies.
I know it is a difficult task for anyone to find and get hired into his or her desired career, because I have experienced the process pre- and post-wheelchair. Both are challenging, stressful, frustrating, but in the end hopefully rewarding. I quickly learned that as a C5 quadriplegic, I had a few more hurdles to jump over despite the fact that my education and work experience qualifications did not change. Besides finding a career that was a good fit, I had to now consider transportation, nursing for any of my needs throughout the day, accessibility in regards to equipment for work, assistance with typical duties, avoiding health issues such as pressure sores from sitting in one position for an entire work day, all the way down to who would help me eat my lunch! The best option for me was part-time remote work from my home office.
After starting my work at United Spinal Association, I quickly found out about all of the incredible resources that are available for those with disabilities who are seeking employment. United Spinal’s Pathways to Employment (PTE) offers webinars, podcasts, various resources specific to people with spinal cord injuries and disorders (SCI/D), and a video series that covers various aspects of finding and landing a job that is a great fit for you. The Pathways to Employment program also provides guidance for employers in order to ensure that people with disabilities are properly represented in their workforce.
Another key resource is the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) where you can find employment assistance and resources. There you can also find the link to the Campaign for Disability Employment titled What can YOU do? This initiative highlights what people with disabilities can do if they are simply given the opportunity. The “Working Works” PSA Campaign is part of this initiative, and United Spinal Association is represented in that PSA by one of our own members, Chanelle Wimbish of Maryland..
The United Spinal family is a community that is truly passionate about helping those with disabilities find employment or return to work after an injury or illness. This is a community that has given me the opportunity to work in a field that I am truly passionate about. This is a community that I am extremely proud to have joined. I want those with a disability to know that there are opportunities out there for you to meaningfully use your talents and skills. I was offered my position at United Spinal by sticking to what I am passionate about… writing, speaking, and being a voice for those who do not have one. If you continue to use all the resources available to you, continue networking, continue working hard, and continue believing in yourself and everything you are capable of, you will find those opportunities. This world is starting to understand the importance of hiring people with disabilities, the skills we bring to the table, and the unique insight we can provide to improve outreach and accessibility to the working world.
That is the light at the end of the tunnel for me, and as we all keep pushing forward that light will continue to get brighter.
It’s kind of ironic because that exact question is one of the most popular, but coming in at a close second…
How fast does your chair go?
The question I want to talk about today is…
What does it feel like?
My official diagnosis is that I am an incomplete C5 quadriplegic. An incomplete spinal cord injury means that the ability of the spinal cord to send messages from the brain is not completely lost. This is compared to a complete spinal cord injury, where there is no function at all below the level of injury. Now knowing this, it is important for me to tell you that how my body functions, and what I feel can be completely different from somebody else who has the same level of injury as I do. That is the thing about spinal cord injuries. Each one is so different, and the amount of return after the injury varies for each person.
I know, there is a lot going on in this picture. This is not one of those popular “leg” photos that people always seem to take by a body of water. Well, it is… but for a different reason. I wanted you all to see it because this is my view. There is a beautiful lake, because I am sitting at my favorite spot at the end of our dock which is where I do quite a bit of my writing. I have my favorite sandals and some bright pink toenails. Please do not let those pink toenails or pink shorts fool you though… I love fishing, football, and I do not mind getting my hands dirty. There also layers upon layers of scars. Each scar has its own story, and some of my favorite include softball wins and stolen bases.
Here they are… these legs of mine. They look like they should work, right!?
After 15 years of being in this wheelchair, I can honestly say that every day, at least once a day I still look down at these legs and think to myself, “Man… you really look like you should work…” This thought goes through my head because, these legs of mine look like they always have. Yeah, they are a little smaller due to some muscle atrophy, but besides that, I often feel like I should be able to hop out of this chair and go for a walk. I am not sure if that thought will ever go away, because spinal cord injuries are just really confusing and hard to understand, and sometimes even harder to grasp… Even after 15 years.
So, I will do my best to answer the question, “What does it feel like?”
Many times people think that I can not feel anything at all. Others may not realize that I have even lost feeling below my injury. Listen, it is OK. I will be the first to admit that I knew nothing about spinal cord injuries until I actually had one.
With my level of injury, I have complete feeling and sensation from my chest/mid-bicep and up. I have complete movement of my shoulders and biceps. My triceps are stubborn and kick in on a good day. For me, this is a blessing, because I still have the ability to hug, to hold babies, to wave, to pet puppies, and to use a headlock when needed. It is a collection of little things that add up to a whole bunch… especially when they are things I was very close to losing the ability to do in a split second. They are all things that I used to be able to do without thinking twice about it.
Now, all the complicated stuff is the rest of my body below that level. Internally, I can feel almost everything… every muscle spasm, muscle cramp, nerve pain, and these strange zings that shoot down my legs when someone scares the crap out of me. Weird, right? Externally it is a completely different story. The best way to describe it is, if someone would come up and pinch my leg I would be able to tell you where that person pinched me, but I would not feel the pain of the pinch. Granted, my leg might involuntarily jump and kick that person in the shin, because that is how my body reacts to any pain below my chest, and let’s be real here… that person deserves it! The same goes for my sensation of feeling anything hot or cold on my skin. There has been a number of instances where I have looked down at my arms or hands and I have a burn blister, and I was clueless because I did not feel it at all. So, plates at Mexican restaurants are my nemesis… Those suckers are en fuego!
Here is the crazy thing… my nerves are all connected still. This means that anytime I attempt to move a body part such as my toe, I feel every signal down to the tip of that toe. Actually, if I close my eyes and try to move my toe, I would bet you money that it is moving. That goes for any part of my body below my level of injury that is paralyzed. I can try and try until I am blue in the face, which I have done before. So, even though I feel every signal going down, I just can not get those muscles to fire. A spinal cord injury is similar to the broken electrical cord that is pictured below. You can do everything humanly possible to jam that cord back together, but all the internal wires will not connect. You may get lucky and some of those wires will find a pathway, and you may have some return.
My mom simply says that I am “wired” funny, and you know… I really can’t argue with her.
I know explaining what I feel may somewhat answer your questions, but I also am very aware that it does not fully demonstrate my specific experiences. So, I have found something that you can do as a way of somewhat feeling what I feel. I can not remember where I found this or who came up with it, but kudos to whoever you are! Check out the picture below to help, but before you do I am putting a disclaimer that at first glance it will look like I am flipping you off… I am not!
All I need you to do is to make a fist then put your fist down on the table… Palm side down. Next, I want you to put your ring finger out straight, so it is the only finger sticking out and it should be touching the table also. Now, without lifting your hand off the table I want you to try and lift that ring finger up off the table… without moving anything else except that finger. I bet you can feel every signal going down to the tip of the finger, and some of you may even get it to twitch or wiggle a little, but it refuses to do what your brain is telling it to do.
You can grunt. You can cuss. You can hold your breath and squeeze your eyes shut. You can stare at it trying to will it to move. You can turn 100 shades of red on your face. It just will not budge.
That is it. That is what I feel.
Oh, and by the way, to answer that other popular question… 6 mph. My wheelchair tops out at 6 mph. It does not sound fast, but trust me… 6 mph down the aisles at a grocery store is fast.
I have not had the hiccups for 15 years… Not once! This is the absolute truth, but there is so much more to this blog than my ability to eat spicy food and drink a carbonated anything without a single hiccup.
I know… I get it… Not another write up about COVID-19. I am asking you to give this one a chance, because this one is different. So, if you are still with me… Thank you.
Right now it is common knowledge that the risk factors for catching this virus are much higher for those who are 60 years of age and over, and also for those who or immunosuppressed. Along with these risk factor groups, I want to talk about the population of people with spinal cord injuries/disabilities (SCI/D). If we look just at the United States, the estimated number of people with SCI is approximately 294,000. That is equivalent to about 54 cases per 1 million people (“Spinal Cord Injuries,” 2020).
I am passionate about the SCI/D population, because I am one of those 294,000, and I have a voice to help, to be an advocate, and to raise awareness. COVID-19 is a virus that affects the lungs, which makes it extremely dangerous for those with spinal cord injuries, especially when the level of injury is higher at the cervical level. My level of injury is diagnosed as C5 incomplete. I am not on a ventilator, and I consider myself lucky, but my specific injury has affected my body from my chest and down.
Now, to answer the question of why this makes people with SCI/D more susceptible…
I have been navigating through life in my wheelchair, without hiccupping, for 15 years. I see the lack of having to deal with hiccups as a silver lining, but it also means that I do not have the capability to cough or clear my lungs without assistance due to the partial paralysis of my diaphragm and core muscles. In order to have the full potential to breathe and cough, it takes the combined teamwork of three muscle “groups” in your body… The intercostal muscles (between ribs), the abdominal muscles, and the diaphragm which takes on most of the work. So, this inability to have full respirations or powerful and effective coughs is a major cause of immunosuppression in anyone who has a SCI/D. Some of the other causes of immunosuppression that are common complications that go along with spinal cord injuries are diabetes, urinary tract infections, and open pressure injuries. All of these provide an open invitation for viruses and bacteria to enter the body. As a C5 quadriplegic, I have dealt and still deal with some of these complications, and it by no means is a quick fix. Now I am sharing this information not only to raise awareness, but I will be the first to admit that I knew nothing about SCI/D before my diving accident. I want the level of awareness to change and I am passionate about finding ways to make that change.
This brings me to the topic of how you can TAKE ACTION, and help bring change. The United Spinal Association is an amazing organization that is one of the major leaders in fighting to protect the health and safety of disabled veterans, wheelchair users, and anyone with a spinal cord injury or disorder. The support and resources they provide are extremely important during times like now, and there are various ways that you can reach out for support or get your hands on some valuable resources.
One very simple way that you can take action is by visiting the online United Spinal Action Center and offer your support for the important provisions of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act). Even though it is unlikely that this bill will pass through the Senate, it is extremely important that your Representatives and Senators are aware of the provisions that the United Spinal Association supports in future consideration of this legislation that can directly affect those with SCI/D, their families, and their caretakers.
You can visit the action center and truly help make a difference by a few simple clicks of the mouse, sharing this information with others, and offering your support in any way possible…