Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month: a testimonial

September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month. According to the World Health Organization, every year, around the world, between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury (SCI).

I was just a teenager in 1983, when I sustained a spinal cord injury as the result of a diving accident. The world was a different place. Thirty-eight years ago, there were no laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities, no internet, and no social media.

As a newly injured individual, I had to navigate this big and scary new world on my own. In my community, church and school, I was the only person living with a spinal cord injury. It wasn’t until I competed in the Ms. Wheelchair Michigan pageant and the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant that I got to meet other women and people with disabilities.

Those experiences were invaluable, and that sense of community and belonging was so important in helping me become the person I am today. That peer-to-peer support shown me anything is possible, that I wasn’t alone, and that I didn’t have to be defined by my disability.

For someone newly injured today, the world doesn’t have to be so lonely. Thanks to social media, the internet and even virtual meetings you can connect with people all over the world who have spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. As I scroll through my own social channels, I am constantly seeing people sharing resources, stories, advice, and words of encouragement aimed at others with disabilities. Finding a tribe of people who truly understand you and your experiences is so important.

I especially think about how different the world looks to young people with disabilities today. Back when I was first injured I never saw a person with a disability in an ad, movie, magazine or TV commercial. I never saw the Paralympics on TV. It is important for young people with disabilities to see that. Positive representation matters. It sends a powerful message that you are seen and valued.  

Yes, the world has changed, maybe not as quickly as some of us would like, but hopefully we are blazing a trail of acceptance, accessibility and inclusion for the next generation of people with disabilities.

About Cheryl Angelelli

Paralympic medal winner, World Record holder, and Athletes with Disabilities Hall of Fame inductee, are just a few of Cheryl Angelelli’s many accomplishments. She is also a professional ballroom dancer and works in healthcare marketing.