September was spinal cord injury awareness month. I have known SCI for almost 38 years now. I remember the day in 1981 after the school bus accident, when my mother told me the reason I could not feel my legs was because I was paralyzed below my chest. From that day forward, spinal cord injury became part of who I am and who I would become.
At the beginning of my injury, I knew very few SCI people. When I attended college at the University of Wyoming, there were only three people who used wheelchairs and one was me. The others didn’t have a spinal cord injury. After college, I returned home to Reno, Nevada, where I knew few people in wheelchairs or those who had SCI. I hung out with show girls, dancers and singers, and none of those people in that profession had SCI. I was on my own to understand what it meant to live with a spinal cord injury.
The first role model I met in a wheelchair was a woman named Donna Cline. She was a news anchor in Las Vegas who was injured in a car accident. She and I met at the Ms. Wheelchair Nevada pageant in Las Vegas. She won, and I was the runner up. I was in awe of her! She was like me, blonde and paraplegic. Finally, I knew someone I might connect with who had a spinal cord injury. She even wore high heels like I did and we both had Donna in our names. We giggled about how we positioned our high heels on our footplates and she told me later in life that she copied me. At that time, I crossed my legs on my footplates, because it kept my high heels on. Not many women wore high heels in wheelchairs at that time. Donna was an amazing advocate and I learned so much from her about advocacy. She went on to win Ms. Wheelchair America.
A few years later, I moved to Las Vegas. I attended a spinal cord research clinic called Help Them Walk Again. I become the first person west of the Mississippi to walk with electrical stimulation. I loved the clinic! Everyone there had a spinal cord injury and this was where I began to learn about using my voice to help others. In 1985, I met U.S. Senator Harry Reid for the first time at Help Them Walk Again. Later, he became my mentor and our champion as majority leader in the U.S. Senate. It is interesting where your voice leads you.
Many people who have spinal cord injuries have crossed my path and each one is different and unique with their personalities and their compassion to help others like them. It is often the strength that I draw from. I never thought that I would go from a small-town Wyoming girl with a spinal cord injury to an SCI advocate in Washington D.C. who found her voice. I have found people like me who I call my “SCI clan” and together, we educate our leaders on spinal cord injuries and the importance of durable medical equipment. Remember to use your voice. There’s no telling where it may lead.
About Madonna Long: Madonna works as a disability advocate to educate policymakers and congressional leaders on disability issues. She is a mother to four children and lives life on her terms, despite a spinal cord injury. Click here to learn more about Madonna.