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Laurel Labdon founded the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts foundation in 2005, with herself as an independent delegate in order to raise awareness and money for causes related to disabilities.  Her work has made a huge impact in Washington, for young people and pretty much anyone she speaks to about her platform causes because she uses herself as a shining example of how to turn our so-called mishaps into gifts.
Love + Water- Can you talk about how you founded the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts organization?
Laurel Labdon- I founded Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts in 2005.  Its mission is to find the best spokeswoman to speak to issues relating to the disabled, specifically wheelchair cases.  There is a national program called Ms. Wheelchair America, and individual states can set up their own programs on a local level.  I had never heard of the organization, and had attended a disabilities expo when one of the vendors asked if I had ever entered the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.  I thought it was the worst pick-up line I’d ever heard, but I looked it up online and found it was an advocacy program that was really effective, but there was not one set up yet in Massachusetts.  Shortly thereafter the state of Massachusetts was trying to fund a program for stem cell research, which I’m in favor of, and that was an impetus for me to start the program.  I went through the whole process of establishing it and was able to accomplish quite a bit in the first few years as an independent delegate.
L+W- What is the format of the pageant?
LL- It is in no way a beauty pageant in the traditional sense.  It is a surprisingly effective way to get attention on the legislative level, with the main focus being advocacy for the disabled.  Anyone wearing a sash and crown gets attention, so it’s extremely helpful in getting us noticed so that our voices can be heard.  The pageant requires each contestant to have private interviews with each judge about the causes she supports and she has to give a speech about her platform cause.  After starting the ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts organization I competed in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in 2006 and was the fourth runner-up.  I won the speech competition, which was my goal, and was very happy about that.
L+W- What was the cause of you being in a wheelchair?
LL- I was in a car accident, which I have no memory of, a week before my 20th birthday.  I apparently hit a branch in the middle of the road and the road was slick because it was very hot out and had rained.  I wrapped my car around two trees, broke my neck and suffered a spinal cord injury.  I was originally paralyzed from the neck down and on a respirator, but luckily I was able to gain some function back in my arms and a little movement in my left toes.  I’m very lucky to be where I am today.
L+W- How did you deal with the adjustments you had to make in life as a result?
LL- My life plan was altered irrevocably, and many people ask me if I ever wish it never happened.  I say no- I wish I could walk, but I can’t say I wish it never happened because there are so many people I’ve been able to forge relationships with and experiences I’ve been able to have that I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the accident.  It was always my intention to help people, which was where my focus was before the accident.  Being a living example of what is possible for the disabled has helped fulfill that intention.
L+W- How can people donate to the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts organization?
LL- We choose a new title holder every year from our pageants, and are constantly finding ways to raise money.  The easiest was to donate right now is directly through our website.
L+W- What is the most moving moment you’ve had with Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts?
LL- When I was the title holder we did a lot of work in schools.  I felt that as an advocate the best thing you can do is to be seen.  The best part of this program is the low expectations that people have for those in wheelchairs, so when they see that I’m able to get around as much as I do, and that I run an art gallery and pretty much do everything that the average person can, it’s leaves an impact.  I don’t look like someone’s grandmother in a wheelchair, since I’m younger, so it makes the kids realize that accidents can happen at any age and disabilities can occur at any age.  So when I was visiting a school I had one little boy say to me, “you don’t need a wheelchair to be a princess, but I know you would have been a princess anyway.”  Not only was that moving because it was an extremely kind thing to say, but I realized that I had gotten across to them that just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they aren’t like everyone else.  And that is what I was there for.