Following a car accident that left both of her legs and one arm amputated, Lawrence resident Deb Young was focused first on surviving, then on figuring out how to function in her new body.
Even years later, the idea of proactively talking about her situation publicly was far from her mind, she said.
So when a former Ms. Wheelchair Kansas suggested she enter the competition, Young said she laughed and told her “thanks for the kind words" — at least at first.
“It’s not my style to do things like this,” Young said. “When the accident first happened, I spent time just trying to get comfortable with what life has thrown us.”
Young is now the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, and she's using the title to spread awareness and inspiration.
“My platform is to educate as many people as we can about the abilities that we do have, not what we don’t have,” she said. “People still use the term ‘disabled,’ but I hate it. I like ‘differently abled.’”
Young’s yearlong reign started in March. In August, she went to the Ms. Wheelchair America competition in Erie, Pa., where she participated in interview sessions and gave a speech on her platform, “Education Increases Independence in Communities.”
There, although she didn’t win the national title, she was honored with the Woman of Perseverance Award, for a contestant who has “persevered through many challenges to become an independent, strong woman,” according to a Ms. Wheelchair America news release.
In Kansas, Young’s appearances have included the Self-Advocate Coalition of Kansas Conference, the Tri-County Coop, the Challenge Games in Derby, an ADA anniversary celebration hosted by the Whole Person, the Freedom Hooves Therapeutic Horse Riding Rodeo, and speaking with youth at the Muscular Dystrophy Camp, the news release said. Young has also volunteered reading and talking to kids in Lawrence elementary school classrooms.
When she considered participating in Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, and after she won, Young said her passion for education — her career for more than 30 years — kicked in.
At the time of her accident in late 2013, she was an assistant special education director for Greenbush, a nonprofit organization that works with school districts to provide services for at-risk students.
She was on her way home from a meeting when, on U.S. Highway 169 in Neosho County, her car collided head-on with a vehicle traveling in the wrong direction. She said doctors feared she would not survive at all, but she did, and after five months hospitalized and in rehabilitation, she returned home.
She still does physical therapy, including for her right arm, which she could barely use at all after the accident but which now has improved strength.
All the discussions for the Ms. Wheelchair program, plus bonding with other women in wheelchairs from across the country at the Ms. Wheelchair America competition, has helped Young “get through” things, she said.
Also, Young said her husband and family have helped her through it all, and they have gotten even closer.
“What we’ve learned from it is the love that we did have that we took for granted,” she said. “We didn’t realize what we had until we almost lost it.”
Since the accident, she and her husband have taken two cruises. On one, they renewed their marriage vows.
She still cooks with her elder granddaughter, as she did before the accident, but in a new way — namely, teaming up with her husband so that he can do the physical part while she’s nearby.
As for her younger granddaughter, who didn’t know her before the accident, she only knows one way of being held by Grandma. Instead of Young picking her up, she said, the child just climbs up onto her wheelchair footrest and into her lap.
“Life hasn’t stopped for us,” Young said of her and her family. “We just have a different path that we have to take.”