Washington, D.C., Sept. 22 – My life flipped upside down and changed forever on an August summer day in 2004. I was 18 years old when a wave lifted my feet off the ground and slammed me head first against the ocean floor. I remember hearing a loud crack in my neck and could not move my arms or legs. I later awoke in a hospital bed paralyzed below the shoulders, and unable to speak because of a ventilator in my neck helping me to breathe. For four weeks I could not say a word or speak my mind. Eventually I weaned off the ventilator and found my voice again.
Since regaining my voice, I have dedicated my life to letting each and every word be heard with purpose. Whether with my voice or with my powerful power wheels, I try to be a force for good through civic engagement by bettering my community and others living with significant disabilities. I have faced many obstacles compromising my ability to live safely and independently in the community outside of a nursing home. Numerous times I was denied vital government-funded community supports such as attendant care and nursing care. Luckily every time I faced one of these scary challenges, I did not have to face them alone.
I learned early on in my injury about the importance of civic engagement and being my own best advocate. Civic engagement is all about making a difference in one’s life and one’s community. Each of us have our own unique set of skills, values, knowledge, and motivation that can be shaped overtime. What we do with our time and how we better our community determines our level of civic engagement. My paralysis injury taught me that no one is going to fight harder for me, than me. Being my own best captain-of-the-ship of my life voyage would allow me to have a choice in the direction of my future. Very importantly, as the captain, I recognized I could not sail safely just by myself, and that I needed help from different crewmates to get to where I needed to go. Some of my most helpful crewmates turned out to be my elected officials.
Early on I shared my story with my state and federal level legislators by writing letters, sending emails, making phone calls, and/or meeting them in person. You can look up your federal and state legislators by clicking here. I created a personal connection with my representatives and continually updated them on my goals, accomplishments, and sometimes my struggles. When I faced a barrier or a denial of government services, I did not have to face these challenges alone because my legislators had my back. I worked with them to strategize a path forward not only for myself but others like me that may not know how to exercise their voice or how to pursue civic engagement. By working side-by-side with your elected representatives you can reshape your life and community whether through accessing existing programs and services, or advocating for new policies and laws. You have great power with your time to choose what you advocate for.
After graduating with honors from undergrad and law school, I was hired as an associate lawyer at a medical malpractice law firm. My state agency, which provided me with nursing care, sent me a letter in the mail stating that I could not continue to receive nursing services while being employed. They told me I had to choose to either work or receive my nursing care, but I could not have both. I decided that this would not be my future or the future of others. I immediately reached out to my elected officials and we came up with a game plan to pass legislation through the Maryland legislature. We put forward a House Bill, a Senate Bill, knocked on numerous doors of representatives, testified at committee hearings, and on the last day of the legislature we got the bill passed.
I could not have done this alone and I could not have done this without the right elected officials. It is important who represents you and your District. You have great power with your ability to choose who you vote for.
September 22, 2020 is National Voter Registration Day! I ask you today to please pursue your civic duty of civic engagement by not only registering to vote yourself but by also encouraging others to do the same. Click here to learn more and to register to vote today!
Below are a few resources to learn more about voter registration or to get involved with the movement:
Nonpartisan Political Resources with a Focus on Disability Issues