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…
September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness month and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation has asked us to write a letter to ourselves pre-injury. Not only is it an amazing way to reflect on how far we each have come, but it also is an excellent way to share our stories and to help inspire one another. The theme is What I Now Know, and this is my letter…
I’m going to start by being brutally honest. It is not going to be easy, you are going to be scared, you are not going to even understand at first why this even happened to you. The second your feet leave the pavement and you dive into that pool like you have done hundreds of times before, you will not know that this time is different. This time it will completely turn your world upside down. It’s not going to hurt, you are not going to feel a thing, and that will be the scariest part of it all because you are not going to know anything is wrong until you try to stand up out of the water to breathe. Even almost 15 years after this night, you are not going to really understand how it happened because you never hit the bottom, and you will think of it often, and you will replay it in your head. It is a freak accident, Annie, and it is going to happen to you. It is going to affect everyone in your life that loves and cares for you, but please trust me when I say you are going to be ok… you are going to make it.
I will tell you this, and it may take quite a while for you to understand, but this freak accident is going to happen to you because you are strong enough to survive. You have a fight in you that you do not even know is there. You will wake up in a hospital bed with a body that was once yours, but now it is a body that is not going to respond or listen to anything that you want it to do. So, from that moment you open your eyes you are going to have to start all over. You are going to have to work so hard to do things that you once took advantage of and did not even have to think twice about doing.
Your first year in the wheelchair is going to be one of the most difficult and trying times of your life. You are going to feel uncomfortable when people look at you, and you are going to feel discouraged at how some people treat you. That first year will pass and you are going to start feeling more comfortable with who you are as each year goes by. Some people in your life may fade away, not because they don’t love you or they don’t care for you, but because they are not sure how to handle what happened to you. On the other hand, there will be people that stay by your side day in and day out. I want you to wrap your arms around those people, and wrap your arms around your family, because these people are your support system, your number one fans, and the ones that will pick you up when life gets heavy.
I know you had big plans for after college, and you had it all mapped out. I know how hard you worked for your degree. You will quickly learn that the only thing you can truly plan for is the unexpected. You are going to meet people and do things that you never would have if you hadn’t dove in that pool. You are going to become a strong and confident woman, and realize you have talents buried down deep that will find their way to the surface. These are talents that you do not even know you have, and you will do things that begin to help you understand why you were sent down this life’s path. Your life and your experiences are going to help others, and you have to truly believe that.
Before I end this letter, I will give you a few more important pointers….
– You will experience love and heartbreak… Being in a wheelchair does not make you immune to that, and just because you are in a wheelchair does not mean you won’t find love and a partner to take on life with.
– You have to allow yourself to feel vulnerable, or frustrated, or just plain mad, because you are human.
– Don’t give up… whether it is on life, love, or the Chicago Cubs.
– Truly and deeply hang onto the memories of things you love… like playing softball, feeling the sand between your toes, holding onto a warm cup of coffee, or dancing face-to-face with someone you love, because even though one day you may not be able to do all of these things, you will always remember how they made you feel, and nobody or nothing can take that away.
– Do it. Even if it scares you. Do it. Life is short.
– Your spinal cord injury does not define you.
This is your life Annie, and it is the only one you’ve been given. Giving up is not an option. It never has been, and it never will be. Take a deep breathe and put your seatbelt on…. it’s going to be a crazy ride. This life of yours will be a life full of love, support, happiness, and laughter with a few ups and downs.
You are strong… You are beautiful… You have a purpose, and the wheels are just how you get from one adventure to the next.
Keep on pushing forward and you are going to be just fine… I promise.
As many of you know, I am a children’s book author, but I have always wanted to write a book about my story. I have worked on this on and off for about four or five years now, and it is nowhere near completion. It is a project that I work on when the writer’s block fog dissipates and ideas come rolling in. It may take four or five more years to complete it, but I enjoy putting my story down on a piece of paper. It challenges me to find a way to truly describe all the emotions, experiences, and challenges since I dove into that pool almost 12 years ago.
Below is an excerpt from the beginning of my book. My whole goal for this section is to help the reader, whether they know me or they are a complete stranger, picture those hours before my accident. I can play the events of that day over and over in my mind with such vivid images, and I want the reader to also be able to be there with me. So, I would love for you to take a few minutes to read through these few paragraphs. Your input, comments, and ideas are what can help me make my story so much better. Sharing my story is very therapeutic, but in the end I am writing this for you.
CHAPTER 1 – GO BACK WITH ME
It’s still so hard to go back, but I go there often. I have learned that it is impossible to erase the memory of a split second in my past that had the power to change my entire future. The thoughts, the feelings, the “whys,” and the “what ifs” are a constant battle. It is a battle, that at times is numbingly overwhelming, but it is also a battle that I passionately feel I can beat. I want to share my story about the past 12 years of my life… not for sympathy, but for the simple fact that I know there are others that sit where I sit. This is the one life that was given to me, so I am going to fight for it. So, go back with me to that day where I had to learn how to live all over again.
May 7, 2005
Let me introduce myself. I am not famous and I am not a hero. I am a twenty something young woman who is just hours away from graduating college with a fresh Interior Design degree and a new job at a design firm with a promising future. I am to start my new career in two days as a Project Designer. After five years of pop quizzes, pulling all nighters, cramming for tests, and presentations, I am excited to start this new phase of my life that I have worked so hard to reach. No more homework and finals. I am going to finally have the opportunity to put my talents and abilities to use for others.
It is hot day today, even in the morning, as I am driving in my convertible to meet my friend Darcy I can feel the stickiness of the Indiana summer heat. The top is down, but even the breeze rushing over the windshield can not cool the black leather seats from the blistering sun. As I arrive at her house near campus and walk inside carrying my cap and gown, everyone is running around franticly trying to adjust their graduation caps just right, fix their make-up, and figure out who is riding with whom. I feel a little under dressed as I look down at my favorite flip flops I decided to wear. Then I notice the bright red nail polish on my toes, and as I am wiggling my toes and admiring their shine, Darcy wraps her arm around my neck for a quick picture before we head out the door. We all stuff ourselves into a couple cars and head to the North Quad on campus, where the ceremonies will begin in less then two hours.
As we walk to our designated spots near the Quad in the center of campus, there is a sea of black caps and gowns with a splash of red tassels. Darcy and I hug, then I make my way over to my group of Interior Design friends that I have worked side by side with for the past four years. We snap pictures and talk about if we have found a job, have a job, or even want a job. It feels so rewarding to talk about my new position I was hired into after a semester of rush hour commuting, hard work, and dedication as a design intern. My new job as a Project Designer will entail me to work with clients who trust me to take what they are picturing in their head, lay it out in a series of sketches, plans, and presentation boards, and finally make it real after hours upon hours of meetings, deadlines, phone calls, and presentations. It is going to be stressful at times and long hours, but I love it and I am good at it. I am so eager to begin this new phase of my life. In the midst of all the excitement and chatter, the time finally arrives where we are asked to line up in preparation to walk to our seats. The feeling of the sun beating down on my black gown is already making my skin tingle, but there could not be a more beautiful day for an outdoor graduation ceremony.
After the commencement speeches and the acknowledgement of the graduates, we split up again to head to our different locations on campus to receive our diplomas. Before we sit down for this final ceremony, I scan the growing crowd trying to spot my family and best friend, Stacy. It means so much to have them here, and it makes everything sink in and feel so real. In about an hour, I am going to turn from a “college student” to an “adult.” I cannot tell if that thought is causing the instant rise in temperature in my body, or if it is my gown and the stiff hot air.
The final ceremony is a blur in my mind. I remember hearing my name and walking across the stage to receive my diploma, then flashing a smile at my family as I make my way back to my seat. As the other graduates take their turn and the speeches are being made, I cannot help but unzip my gown to release some heat. The rush of cool air feels so refreshing on my skin, and my idea must have caught on because the spuratic sound of zippers can be heard through the rest of the ceremony. As everything comes to a close, I am more than ready to celebrate with my family and friends. I am a college graduate, and I have a little under two days to let this sink in before I start my life working in the real world.
Mom and Dad join me at my favorite restaurant on campus for lunch before I head back to my apartment to get ready to meet up with friends. The restaurant is packed with beaming college graduates and family members. It is a typical college pub with glowing neon signs, and beer taps as far as you can see. I have frequented here quite often through my college years. I had grown fond of the college atmosphere, and deep down I know I am going to miss the spontaneous dinner dates with friends, the late nights out, the weekends starting on Thursday afternoon, and the hot dog man at three in the morning. Little do I know there is a surprise party back at my apartment that Stacy has put together. I finish eating with my mom and dad, and make my way back to meet Stacy. I am flying high and so happy, but clueless to the apartment full of friends. As I open the door, I am welcomed by hugs and congratulations, and I am so excited Stacy did this for me. She is a true best friend that I will forever be thankful for. I am ready to have a great time with my friends and celebrate my survival of college.
Throughout the evening friends are coming and going. My apartment has a pool, so of course the idea of going for a swim comes up later in the evening with a small group of friends. I make up my mind to join them, so we all walk down to the pool. The pool is shallow and I am well aware of it, and even tell others it is. I stand at the edge and dip my toes in, while talking with my friends. The water feels cool compared to the air, but I was always one to jump in and not torture myself with the slow agonizing walk into the water where goosebumps slowly travel up your body. This time is no different than any other except for the end result. My feet lightly push from the cement and I do a shallow dive, where my body barely skims under the water. The split second the water rushes over my head, something feels different…
It’s a tricky thing…. the spinal cord that is. I am C5 quadriplegic, and I have been this way for close to 12 years as a result of a diving accident. It was a simple dive that I had done a million times before, except this time I crushed my C5 vertebrae by the way my head was forced back when I hit the water… no pain, no tingles… I never even hit the bottom. It was just a cold and eerie numbness. I was unaware that there was even anything wrong until I went to plant my feet to stand up, but nothing moved. So, there I was… face down in the water, completely coherent but utterly confused as to why I could not move. I am here to share my story with you because of my friends who pulled me out of the pool that evening.
Whenever I talk to groups about my accident, I try to explain just how fragile and sensitive the spinal cord is. For example, if my injury was one level up, I would most likely be on a permanent ventilator. If my injury was one level down, I most likely would have more movement in my hands and wrists. I wanted to share this website, because it has a great break down of the various levels of the spinal cord and what each level controls throughout the body. Before my accident, I was completely unaware to what parts of the body are controlled by the various levels of the spinal cord. So, for those of you that are curious… check this site out!