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Date Posted: 02/25/05 12:44:36pm

Portrait of a contender
Brewster woman, named Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts, sets her sights on a bigger competition

WEST BREWSTER - From a wheelchair, everyday life takes on a different perspective.
Stairs and doors that aren't automatic don't faze able-bodied people.

A 1990 car accident left Laurel Labdon of Brewster a quadriplegic.
(Staff photo by KEVIN MINGORA)

They become obstacles for Laurel Labdon.

Personal care is another challenge. The 34-year-old West Brewster woman can't get out of bed in the morning, dress herself or comb her hair without help.

Then there are the attitudes.

"People tend to think of a disability as always tragic and that they couldn't live like that," Labdon says.

Despite the inconveniences, Labdon, a quadriplegic, puts a positive face on living with a disability.

"I'm the same person I always was," she says, "only I can't walk."

A car accident on July 22, 1990, a week before her 20th birthday, left her paralyzed from the neck down.

Home from college for the summer, Labdon was driving to her waitress job when a storm kicked up. She swerved to miss a fallen branch on a road a mile from her house. The car hydroplaned and Labdon was knocked unconscious. Doctors didn't expect her to survive her injuries: a broken neck and fractured skull.

Labdon was hospitalized for almost a year.

Over the years she regained full sensation in her body and movement in her arms, but the accident changed her life plan. After college she had hoped to join the Peace Corps, then work as a deck hand on a charter boat.

"I wanted to travel and save the world," she says with a smile.

What it is: Ms. Wheelchair America program, created in 1972

Winner's duties: Travel, visit advocacy groups, make public appearances, promote awareness of "architectural and attitudinal barriers"

Information: Write Ms. Wheelchair America, 8610 Glenfield Way, Louisville, KY 40241; call 1-877-MSWHEEL (679-4335); e-mail mswheelchairmass@yahoo.com; Web www.mswheelchairamerica.org.

Labdon had to revise those plans. Yet she hasn't let her physical limitations get in the way of leading a productive life. She has a close circle of friends, dates and enjoys traveling. She's also found meaningful work as an advocate for others with disabilities.

People often tell her she's inspirational, Labdon says, but she's not looking for credit for dealing with a catastrophic injury.

"If I was given a choice, I'd choose not to be a quadriplegic," she says. "But I choose to do valuable things. When life doesn't give you a choice, you have to figure out a new way of doing things and deal with it the best you can."

Besides, her disability has given her experiences and insights she never would have realized, she says.

Like being named Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2005 last month. It was Labdon's outlook that impressed the judges.

"Her special message is that women utilizing wheelchairs have many talents and abilities that are not always recognized," wrote Pat O'Bryant, executive director of Ms. Wheelchair America.

The nonprofit program was started in 1972 by Dr. Philip K. Wood, a Columbus, Ohio physician, to increase public awareness of the achievements and talents as well as the needs of mobility-impaired individuals.

Unlike other pageants, Ms. Wheelchair America "is not a beauty contest," says Denise Di Noto, secretary for the competition. Instead, contestants are judged on their platform speeches, communication skills, accomplishments and self-perception. The title will go to the contestant who can be the best spokesperson for more than 54 million disabled Americans, Di Noto says.

Labdon will compete against contestants from 33 states at the national pageant July 19-24 in Albany.

"I've never been in any kind of pageant," says the impeccably dressed, stunning looking woman who thinks the experience will be empowering. She also looks forward to meeting and exchanging ideas with other contestants from across the country.

Since Massachusetts does not have a state pageant, Labdon applied to become an independent delegate. After meeting the requirements, including a personal interview before the judges, she was accepted by the executive board. Her job involves traveling the state speaking on behalf of the disabled and establishing a Massachusetts pageant.

She is seeking sponsors, both companies and individuals, to lend their financial support.

"We're very excited about having a Massachusetts pageant," Di Noto says. "Our goal is to have a spokesperson in every state" to improve the quality of life for disabled individuals and help breakdown physical and attitudinal barriers.

As Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts, Labdon hopes she'll have greater clout in influencing social change and public policy. Her special concern is the hot-button issue of stem cell research.

"I'd like to use the controversy," she says, "to foster a greater understanding of it."

Her other mission is to dispel popular misconceptions.

"The stereotype is pervasive that if you are disabled you are sick," she says. "Expectations for people with disabilities tend to be lower."

Labdon's vivacious personality and experience fit the bill for her new role. She has worked for the Cape Organization for the Rights of the Disabled (CORD) and formed her own consulting and advocacy business for disabled individuals and their families last August. She also volunteered as a teacher's aide and counselor's aide at a local elementary school.

Labdon returned to the University of Colorado at Boulder three and a half years after her accident to complete her degree in political science. As the only undergraduate in a wheelchair, she paved the way for making the campus wheelchair accessible.

"If you are disabled you have to be an advocate for yourself every day," she says.

Labdon lives with her parents and has a personal care attendant.

"I've been blessed with amazing family and friends and the support I need to get through this," she says happily.

The greatest challenge she faces as a quadriplegic is asking for help and being dependent on others.

"I need help to get out of bed in the morning and get ready for the day. After that I'm pretty independent," says Labdon. "I want to be treated as a smart, capable woman who unfortunately needs some accommodations and special care."

It has taken her years to overcome one emotional hurdle: getting behind the wheel again. Labdon wants to drive to attain more independence and has bought a van that will be modified with electronic hand controls.

But even with all the technology and helpful aids, Labdon looks toward the future with hope tempered with realism.

"I would love if they find a cure for spinal cord injury," she says. "But it's not a goal to live hoping for that. As long as I can do something that keeps me fulfilled, I'm happy."

(Published: February 24, 2005)

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