UW News

May 18, 2006

UW employee is Ms. Wheelchair Washington, raising awareness about people with disabilities

Tammy Wilber has a sash and a crown, and all the usual trappings of a winner of a statewide pageant. She also has a wheelchair.

Wilber, who works as a patient services representative in Rehabilitation at UW Medical Center, is the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Washington 2006, and will compete for the Ms. Wheelchair America title in August in Little Rock, Ark.

She is using her state title to connect with other women with disabilities and raise awareness about the needs of the disabled.

“There is a much smaller community of women with disabilities than men, particularly in wheelchairs,” said Wilber. “Wherever I go I seem to be the only woman, and I have been working to make those connections with others and form a network for women in wheelchairs.”

Wilber, 30, has been paralyzed from the mid-chest down since a car accident the summer before her senior year of high school in New Hampshire. She and a group of friends were on their way to soccer camp when a bee flew into the car and distracted her driving. She went off the road and was ejected, suffering a spinal cord injury.

She went to a rehabilitation facility near her home similar to the one she works in at UW, managing to graduate with her high school class.

Wilber has lived in Seattle for six years, and is very involved in the disability community in Washington state. She worked for several years for Think First, a spinal cord injury prevention program, speaking to schools and other youth groups.

She is finishing her degree in community services via distance learning while working at the UW Medical Center outpatient rehabilitation unit. Her primary job is to do scheduling for outpatients for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

She also serves as a mentor to newly injured spinal cord patients. She is on the Advisory Committee for the SCI Forums, a UW program discussion series for persons with spinal cord injuries, their family, friends and caregivers.

“People are very supportive of me here and make me feel comfortable,” Wilber said. “It’s been really rewarding to me to work here with the patients, many of whom have gone through experiences like mine.”

The Ms. Wheelchair America competition begins July 31 and will include contestants from across the country. There will be interviews done and fancy dresses worn before Ms. Wheelchair America is crowned. Wilber is currently completing her pre-pageant materials and raising funds to offset the costs of travel to Little Rock.

The reigning Ms. Wheelchair America, Kristen Connors of Rhode Island, has used her year to travel extensively on behalf of the disabled.

Wilber has already spoken to many groups in the Puget Sound area, including a Disability Organization Awareness Day this week on the HUB Lawn; Footloose, a sailing group for people with disabilities; Ski-for-All sponsored by REI; the Washington Adaptive Sports Jamboree and Northwest Nextsteps, an exercise facility for people with spinal cord injuries. She has been active in wheelchair sports, including dancing, tennis, hockey, and skiing.

Talking to so many groups about her life in a wheelchair has made Wilber appreciate how far she has come since the car accident 13 years ago.

“I still have challenges every day, but I never thought I would get to where I am today,” she said. “I hope that by speaking out I can help make a difference for others.”