The World is Our Playground and We Want to See It

Traveling in general takes weeks of planning, but it could take months if you are traveling with a disability. I and many others notice there’s an enormous gap of access and resources to help guide us when taking a trip, whether it’s just going across town on public transportation or crossing international waters on a plane. As individuals with disabilities, especially with mobility limitations, we have to adapt to the world around us, but the world around us needs to adapt with us by providing adequate resources for traveling. In recent years, construction companies have strived to incorporate universal designs in buildings and structures where everyone can benefit from the accessibility. However, it’s time for this concept of universal design to carry over into the travel industry. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2017 the travel industry generated 8.2 trillion dollars toward the global economy. Yet, this industry has so much more potential to grow if they catered to the disability population, proven by three student interviews.  

Tamia- Sophomore at The University of Florida

What type of road block do you normally encounter when traveling on a trip?

It’s not necessarily that I can’t travel, but sitting in a car for a long time is not necessarily the most convenient for me. I haven’t traveled on a train or plane so I don’t know about that.

What about the bus? Sometimes the bus drops me off somewhere where there isn’t a sidewalk, so it isn’t a safe place to get off. Also sometimes there are things in the way in the disabled area, like strollers.

Do you think your disability affects your thinking about travel? Why?

I think it does, I’m apprehensive about traveling because I have a disability, there isn’t much guidance about how to travel with a disability, I don’t know what I would do if I encountered a problem while traveling.

What method of transportation do you think requires more improvement in terms of accommodation and How? (air, car, public transportation)

For the bus, the problems I talked about like the sidewalks or not having room in the disability area. With the car, it’s inconvenient to travel for a long time in the car, not a lot of cars have a ramp or anything to help me get in the car with a wheelchair. I haven’t traveled by plane or train so I don’t know about that.

What’s your biggest fear about traveling abroad?

I fear places that aren’t accessible, like if there’s no elevators or curb dips in the sidewalk, the plane ride there seems scary, especially because I’ve never been on one.

Why do you think there is a lack of resources in studying abroad for those with disabilities?

Maybe because it costs more money, that kind of thing needs more resources. There’s a lack of people willing to take the extra mile to help someone with a disability when traveling abroad.  

Have you always had the desire to study abroad? Why?

Most definitely, I think because I’m a first generation student, my parents didn’t get the opportunity to study abroad so I feel like if I have the opportunity to do it I should, plus I’ve always wanted to go to London.

Why do you think there is a need for more resources on traveling with a disability?

People with disabilities are people first, we should have the same opportunities to study abroad as other people.

Tamia had several points I could agree on. However, her struggles on public busses enlightened me on how difficult it is to independently navigate the city. Additionally, I think her desire to travel to London, but apprehension due to a concern over accessibility, demonstrates the gap in the market.

Robyn- Freshman at The University of Florida

What type of road block do you normally encounter when travelling on a trip?

We normally drive places, so I guess hotels! Accessible hotel rooms can be hard to find, it’s hard for my mom to help me get a shower and stuff sometimes.

Do you think your disability affects your thinking about travel? Why?

It didn’t when I was younger but it does now, because now my parents aren’t always with me to help me find a hotel room or help me get in and out of a car so it’s harder because I don’t know how I’m going to get help.

What method of transportation do you think requires more improvement in terms of accommodation and How? (air, car, public transportation)

I guess cars because I don’t fly much but I’ve noticed especially lately that for me I need a lot of leg room to get in and out of car and there aren’t a lot of cars that allow enough room for me to swing my feet in and out.

What’s your biggest fear about traveling abroad?

The logistics of it, I don’t know how it would work or how accessible it would be.

Why do you think there is a lack of resources in studying abroad for those with disabilities?

Because people don’t think about the kinds of accommodations and accessibility things that people with disabilities need, I think that’s the case with a lot of things, it’s not malicious or purposeful they just don’t think about it because they don’t need to.

Have you always had the desire to study abroad? Why?

I don’t know that it’s a desire but I always thought it would be cool just to experience another countries culture. It’s not something I definitely have to do but if I got the opportunity and I could afford it, I think it would be cool.

Why do you think there is a need for more resources on traveling with a disability?

People don’t necessarily think about how much extra effort and thinking go into traveling for those of us with a disability. People don’t realize how different it is for people with disabilities, not necessarily difficult, just different.

A part of experiencing life and what is has to offer is learning about different cultures. Unfortunately, in Robyn’s case, traveling abroad is too risky with so many unknowns. Also, finding accessible hotels is just as important as traveling itself. If the concern over accessible lodging and traveling weren’t so great for Robyn, she would most likely be less hesitant to travel without her parents and would travel more often.

Bradley- Junior at The University of Florida

What type of road block do you normally encounter when travelling on a trip?

If you take your power chair on a plane they can break it and probably will, if you take your walker the airport is way too big, getting on the plane is a mess. We usually take Ubers and a lot of them wouldn’t take my walker, I couldn’t take my chair because then I couldn’t have used any of that kind of transportation (Ubers), people had to help me the whole time because I had to use my walker.

Do you think your disability affects your thinking about travel? Why?

Yes, for most people travel is slightly inconvenient but they still do it but for me it’s very inconvenient and requires a squad of people, you need at least one other person.

What method of transportation do you think requires more improvement in terms of accommodation and How? (air, car, public transportation)

Plane and public transport, the plane you can’t take your wheelchair and if there’s turbulence it can break the chair, because TSA doesn’t usually have to handle wheelchairs so they don’t get it. A lot of cities don’t have buses that run everywhere, or don’t always have ramps on buses.

What’s your biggest fear about traveling abroad?

I can’t even think about traveling abroad, traveling in the US is hard enough. Connecting flights would probably be hard, plus there’s a language barrier. A lot of places don’t have the same laws about accessibility like the ADA, as much as we complain about it here in America it’s worse everywhere else.

Why do you think there is a lack of resources in studying abroad for those with disabilities?

Because you have to think, there isn’t many of us in general who go to college, so they don’t even think about the concept of us studying abroad.

Have you always had the desire to study abroad? Why?

I really do want to go to Spain but I feel like I can’t ever go to Spain.

Why do you think there is a need for more resources on traveling with a disability?

Because we’re humans too, it’s basic equality, like evening the playing field.

I can definitely empathize with Bradley, especially about air travel. It’s a nightmare flying with a power wheelchair if someone doesn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, the government just passed a new law that regulates how airlines treat special equipment such as a wheelchair. This is a first step toward the right direction but there’s still a long way to go to make flying more accessible. It also struck me that he said he couldn’t even consider traveling abroad because of how difficult it is just to travel in the US, which again demonstrates how much potential money the travel industry is losing because of a lack of accessibility.

Summary

The feedback that I gained from this short questionnaire only proves that the need for resources for traveling exist in the disability market. Plus, college students are only one sector representing the whole population. I’m curious to hear experiences of the other one billion people living in the world with a disability. The travel industry is ever changing and adapting to fit an untapped customer, which is crucial to being in the lead while still serving loyal customers. I think the reason for the need is very simple. Everyone deserves to be fearless and travel the world! The mountains will move someday and when they do, the world better be prepared for us!

Stop “Bugging” Me!

Like it or not, bugs or “pet peeves” invade our space. They bite us, they swarm us, they annoy us. But sometimes, like a firefly, they illuminate a situation. We can pretend bugs don’t exist, or we can let them control our behavior, or we can use them to shed light on a root cause and better a situation. Many entrepreneurs or problem solvers rely on the latter.  An objective perspective allows society to understand the complexities of bugs and to see them as a necessary part of life, with a function. Identifying the root causes of something that bothers us can help educate society and eliminate stereotypes. This semester, my entrepreneurship professor challenged us to list 20 of our personal “bugs,” which is harder than you think, especially when the list turned into a discussion of “why would they impact me so much?” In truth, I found it easier to address why the bugs triggered my emotions. However, if I can set aside my affected emotions, addressing them will spawn thoughtful conversations with other people.

Read my bugs and comment. Do you have “bugs!” Can they be helpful? Did you learn anything new?

1. When people say I’m a “good driver” like it is a surprise to them.

WHY it exists: People are not driving powerchairs normally so they automatically assume I am. But they really don’t have anything to compare my wheelchair driving skills to. They are amazed at my skills.

2. When I have just met someone and they won’t talk to me directly, they look at my assistant instead.

WHY it exists: They assume that I am not able to communicate my own thoughts but rather rely on my assistant to speak for me. Is this because I’m in a wheelchair?

3. When someone assumes just because I’m in a chair that my intelligence is not 100%

WHY it exists: Based on upbringing or biases, I understand that people will eventually need to learn about situations that are unfamiliar to them. , But if they are aware and astute, I hope that that they will not be ignorant and instead have an open mind, and help to change others’ perspectives.

4. When parents let their kids walk up to me and say “ why can’t you walk?” without taking the time to make sure their child is taught about disabilities.

WHY it exists: Parents may not realize the importance of educating their kid due to lack of experience with disabilities themselves.

5. When people automatically jump in and say “let me help you with that” instead of asking.

WHY it exists: People assume that those with a disability are 100% dependant on a companion

6. When people finish my sentences for me instead of allowing me to finish my train of thought.

WHY it exists: Since I have a speech disorder, they are afraid to get it wrong so they do this as a safeguard, or they are impatient.

7. When I am driving down the sidewalk on campus, or really anywhere in my power wheelchair, people don’t look where they are walking, so I adjust my line and they still move/hop/leap right in front of me and bump into my chair.

WHY it exists: They are on their phones or they are ignorant of how to act around a wheelchair.

8. When people either park in a disability spot or in front of a rampway, which makes me have to go around and find a new access point. Even happens in front of Cypress.

WHY it exists: It is convenient for them to park and unload really quick, however, they are preventing access for other people.

9. Wheelchair seating for students at UF sporting events are separate from the designated student section where we can sit with friends.

WHY it exists: The physical structure of the building is not universally designed to be inclusive or UF had not  valued placing the wheelchair seating with the other students.

10. When non chair users without a physical disability sit in the disability student section taking up room for chairs and companions.

WHY it exists: Lack of courtesy. Lack of monitoring by staff. Entitlement.

11. When event coordinators are not  considerate of where to place an ADA seating for example gator growls disability seating was placed with the portable toilets.

WHY it exists: Event coordinators may think it’s convenient and easier for us to get out, but in reality, its unpleasant for the customers. They are untrained.

12. When stores, especially in malls, organize the racks of merchandise so close together that it’s nearly impossible for wheelchair users to browse comfortably.

WHY it exists: This exists because stores are trying to maximize floor space for profitability- it also requires staff to keep it organized.

13. Sometimes when people have physical limitations, they must sacrifice cute attire for limited styling and ease of dressing.

WHY it exists: There is a market limitation for attractive and accessible clothing. It’s a new concept just emerging in the fashion world.

14. When a bathroom claims to be accessible but I can’t get my chair through the door or there isn’t enough space to park my chair while using the restroom.

WHY it exists: ADA laws claims to be universal but it is hard to design for every scenario. Every wheelchair has different dimensions but the laws are vague to what is “reasonable.”

15. How difficult it is to plan a study abroad trip for those who need special accommodations.

WHY it exists: There aren’t as many students with special accommodations compared to the student body as a whole. Lack of accommodations and transportation options.Before now, there wasn’t as high of a demand. But it’s changing.

16. It’s difficult for someone with a visible disabilities to get an interview, internship or a job in the marketplace.

WHY it exists: Employers see you as a liability or undermine your ability to meet the requirements

17. When someone is overly clingy/hovering over me.

WHY it exists: Some people have no concept of personal space.

18. When people don’t zip up a bag and then get mad when stuff fałls out.

WHY it exists: They are distracted by the world around them and make it harder for themselves by forgetting to complete simple tasks.  Or they’re lazy.

19.  When two buddies at the gym take turns numerous times on the same machine which causes me to wait forever.

WHY it exists: When you are around friends, they have no sense of time. Or lack of common courtesy.

20. Being around people with negative attitudes

WHY it exists: They are under confident, feel marginalized, and choose to see the negative side in things.

Diversity With A Shot of Resilience- UF’s First Chief of Diversity Officer

Diversity is the celebration of disparate colors, identities, abilities and much, much more. One of the compelling reasons why I chose the University of Florida was its commitment to diversity and inclusion; however, I quickly realized the college was still in its adolescence in its initiative of inclusive excellence. So, when I heard the announcement that UF hired its first Chief of Diversity, I was thrilled — and even more excited to have the opportunity to speak with Antonio one-on-one before class recently.

From his demeanor, I could sense that Antonio was a great listener who prioritized care and open mindedness, hallmarks of a leader in higher education in America.  As the conversation /ensued, I was able to share some specific implementations on improving communication between various departments and students of all abilities. Antonio was different than any other faculty member I have broached about improving he Gator Nation. He genuinely wants to make UF better for the students, not just for the glossy look on paper or online. He is going to do great things during his time here!

I appreciate Antonio’s unique perspective on diversity. For instance, I talk about diversity and inclusion on a daily basis but he made me stop and think about a truer meaning.  He completely changed my thought process on the matter: diversity does not fix anything; it provides an environment for a common cause! Everyone has their own story of origin, of how they arrived at UF, he explained. But how they use those experiences will serve as the fuel to ignite a positive change together.

Change takes a coordinated effort from all parties involved and support from each other to achieve the end goal. We live in an age where different generations think their way is tantamount but don’t always listen to other perspectives. If we can encourage groundbreaking innovations, we have the ability to create something resilient. We need to push the boundaries and test the strength of inclusion, safety nets, and equity. College campuses are especially in need of a resilient system that gives and takes, listens and responds. At the end of the day, everyone matures at their own pace, but the empowerment to embrace change is constant. It is a fine balance between constantly taking risks and living in the moment. Diversity goes deeper than equality. It’s complex storytelling where individuals can – and should – use their experiences for a common vision.

 

What does being “Fearless” mean?

Fear of failure is in all of us no matter how hard we try to deny it.  I am here to tell you that fear is not all bad. It’s all about perspective. Over my lifetime, especially in the past two years since entering college, I have turned my fears into the fuel that drives my determination to overcome roadblocks. So what if I “fail?”  The experiences and people along the way are who I have learned from the most. Too much time is wasted on peer comparison and too little time is spent on personal growth. College is notorious for promoting competition, but, it can also channel your future purpose. One organization in which I competed for a spot, Florida Leadership Academy, took mere sophomores, and turned our inhibitions into rallies. Once a week, several renowned guest speakers imbued upon us that the number one attribute of a great leader was…

“TO BE FEARLESS!”   

This ammunition would propel me to formulate a power student group to propose several new initiatives for the differently abled community at UF. I live with several intelligent students who cope with a variety of disabilities, and I find them to be fire-crackling, wild and fun human beings, to say the least! Together, our goal was to address campus-wide issues such as transportation, elevators, and recreation. The stigma that individuals are defined by their disabilities or chronic conditions is far from the truth, yet even at the one of the Top 10 universities in the country, administration must be reminded, even educated to this.  By taking action, our group was able to meet with the vice president of student affairs and make productive changes for current and future students at the University of Florida. I found that expressing vulnerability through our conversations allowed deeper motives to be conveyed. Exposing vulnerabilities is not easy but sometimes it’s necessary for meaningful impact. Recently, the Disability Resource center hosted an advocacy assembly to empower students to embrace their community. I had the honor to chat with MsWheelchairFL, shavaughn Barnes, about the ever growing need for disability awareness! Proud that the UF DRC is fostering inclusivity within higher education! Below find out how @ms._wheelchairfl2018 lives fearlessly through a short interview

My voice was emboldened here, and now there’s no holding back my passion to make a difference.  I learned that a team is greater than one. I learned that if you surround yourself with people who have similar passions, fear becomes the fuel for breaking boundaries. I learned that fearless is for me. Is it for you, too?

 

~fearless means taking risks~

~fearless means speaking up~

~fearless means accepting failure~

~fearless means being adaptable~

~fearless means exposing vulnerabilities~

~fearless means being prepared to make a positive impact~

FLASHBACK – Just Say “Hi” and Then “Fly”… to New York!

Flashback to Spring 2017, part of the most amazing year of my life!  My story of that day…which which started with “just saying Hi,”…which led to New York City…which led to That Event…which led to celebrities…which led to 5th Avenue…which led to…this story!

Lesson #1…Sometimes it’s OK to skip class

Perhaps the best decision I have made recently was to skip class (!)…  to attend an event called The Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium, hosted by UF’s Warrington College of Business.  Inside the Reitz Union, several successful women would share how they overcame obstacles and implmented their value system in pursuit of launching their own local, national and international businesses. Of course the real draw for me and the other 500 attendees was keynote speaker, Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, co-founder of Vera Bradley, the global, publicly traded, $450 million-dollar travel, lifestyle and accessory brand. In her riviting talk, she relived the “aha moment,” when she and a neighbor tired of seeing drab, monochromatic suitcases while traveling and realized they could create something far more appealing for women. Now a graceful 70+ years young, the founder thrilled the audience with the birth story of the Vera Bradley’s brand (named for Barbara’s mother), atop her basement ping-pong table, with $200 borrowed from their husbands, for fabric no less! Twenty-five years later, the brand, instantly recognizable for its well-constructed, colorfully-patterned luggage, has expanded into other fabrications, too, for personal, school, business, hostessing and accessories with propriatary designs, as well as many licensed products. That’s a big deal

Lesson #2. If you see just a tiny window of opportunity, GO FOR IT!  Do not doubt yourself!!!

After the event, my mom and I waited patiently in line for an autograph and a picture with Barbara. The opportunity to meet a fashion industry icon doesn’t happen very often, and I tried to think of a question that would provoke creative thinking on her part ~ something that nobody else has asked. I thought of the Vera backpack hanging on the back of my wheelchair, and then it clicked;  “Have you thought about designing an adaptive bag that would clip on the side of a wheelchair so your customers could easily access it?”

Barbara’s eyes lit up with excitement and turned to the people in line, explaining; ” I’m sorry but it’s going to be a few minutes.” And then she waved to me and simply said, “Hi!” My mom and I knew this was “code” for the latest national public service campaign with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, “Just Say Hi!” It was meant to show that just being friendly to someone with a disability is all it takes to brighten someone’s day, or in my case, change my life…

That simple greeting launched our conversation into the Emmy-nominated show, “Speechless,” and the CP Foundation campaign, and especially to my interest in the world of adaptive fashion design. I couldn’t believe she was taking all this time with me! Finally, Barbara asked her assistant to give me one of her mysterious “Barbara” cards with her personal number, and a promise for us to keep in touch with one another. Driving away, stunned… I didn’t know what just happened… but I did believe a door of opportunity had just cracked open.

Lesson #3: God has surprises up His (Adaptive) sleeve

Fast-forward three weeks; college was out for summer; I was having a mundane day… until I opened  my emails and saw IT! I screamed as my mom raced to my room to find I had not fallen off my bed, but rather, had received an invitation from Barbara inviting my parents and me as her special guests to the “Design for  Disability Gala” in New York City in two weeks!! Everything we had spoken of that afternoon in Gainesville had led her to think of us for this thrilling invitation. The gala is a unique event where a famous fashion designer (in this case Derrick Lam) mentors six design students from respected design schools on how to adapt their clothing collections for those with disabilities; it was also a benefit for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation; AND, so exciting – the cast of TV’s hottest new show “Speechless” would be there!.

Mom, Dad, the answer just has to be YES! We can’t say “NO” to the founder of Vera Bradley! And so, within 14 days, we were catching a Yellow Cab to meet Barbara again, this time in a trendy converted warehouse located in New York’s historic garment district! Prior to the industrial revolution until the mid 20th century, the garment district was the hub for all things couture’ and designer in America. Now, the majority of those warehouses have been converted into  rustic yet charming venues for special events. The 2nd annual Design for Disability gala highlighted student work from The Pratt Institute, Fashion Institute of Technology, and Parsons School of Design with collections of design for individuals with a variety of body types, all of whom need clothing that is easy to get in to and out of. The purpose of this project is to challenge aspiring designers to think outside the stereotypical mindset of designing for typical body types.

Lesson #4: Be Yourself and others will join you there

Before the fashion show, a glamorous cocktail hour filled with celebrities, the media, and fashion lovers would set the mood for the night. The walls were decorated with huge paper flower gardens and powerful quotes from the models, blown up along the walls. Photographers and press surrounded Loreen Arbus,the major event benefactor and daughter of NBC’s founder, as well as Scott Silveri, the  creator of Speechless (and a writer for Friends), and the cast, including Minnie Driver and Micah Fowler, who himself has CP.  Barbara would graciously introduce us to her family and her foundation’s board members, and then join them at Vera Bradley’s runway-facing table as a major sponsor.  I myself was seated next to Barbara’s granddaughter and her best friend, who is Tory Burch’s neice!As we mingled through the crowd, I spotted my friend and mentor Mindy Scheier, founder of Runway of Dreams, and her assistant Debbie, whom had invited me to New York the summer before at the inaugeral Runway of Dreams runway show for adaptive fashion. She was amazed to see me, and the three of us took photographs together!  I was barely breathing, with me and Mindy and Barbara – two of my mentors breathing the same air in New York City! In just a couple of weeks I would be back to model in Mindy’s signature event with designers from Tommy Hilfiger, who had been busily designing an outfit based on my body type!  I also, literally ran into the famous comedian Zach Anner and makeup YouTuber, Maysoon Zayid, both of whom are committed to de-sensitizing the public about Cerebral Palsy. The world does not have to tip toe around disability stigmas, we have tougher skin than people think.

Lesson #5: Disability has begun to find its voice in fashion.

At the stroke of 7:30, everyone glided upstairs where the main event was awaiting us. There, running the length of long tables surrounding the runway and the entire room, were  hundreds of Spring-fresh tulips in a rainbow of colors. Just beautiful! Since the Vera Bradley foundation was a major sponsor of the Cerebral Palsy foundation, we had a front row seat to the show! The atmosphere might have been the opposite of what you think with some of New York’s elite philanthropists. The room bubbled over with nothing other than humility and generosity. There’s still goodness in the world if you see past the masks and the distractions. And, they don’t lie when they say; “The Gator Nation is everywhere!” We sat across the table from the global VP of visual merchandising for Vera who is UF alum! We chatted about strategic placement of merchandise and seasonal themes.

After a delicious dinner that I could barely eat, the runway show began! But first, Micah Fowler, star of Speechless, and his TV Mom Monnie Driver,gave an emotional if stuttered speech on the importance of CP research. My instinct wished someone would help him speak, but I fully understood what it meant to have your own voice. I got a taste of my own words! It was eye opening, or should I say “ear opening” to be on the other end of listening to someone who has speech difficulties. Next, Toby Hatfield, lead designer from Nike, was honored for his work on the Nike Fly-Ease sneaker that is fully adaptable, opening from the back with velcro! Finally, Derek Lam kicked off the show with his protegees’. There were no dry eyes in the house, as the models walked and rolled down the runway to a standing ovation that lasted the entire show! The male and female models had just the right amount of attitude and flare with their beautiful outfits that the designers complimented to their individual body type. For instance, a young woman with crutches worked a kerchief skirt that flowed beautifully with her unique gate. And one of the guys is a photographer, so his pants had velco storage around the knees so he could get to this supplies.

After the show, I personally spoke with a designer who focused on paraplegic and sensitive skin. He and his model explained how crucial it is to have breathable fabric due to his client’s inability to regulate core body temperature. Furthermore, eliminating extra seams on the back of pants allows more comfort for those who are seated most of the time.

I felt so blessed to have this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be immersed in an event like this and just wished there was more time to soak everything up!  It was time, now, to navigate my way through the sea of people to say “hi” to the Speechless crew.  My dad pulled the creator of the show, Scott Silveri, aside and asked if he wanted to meet the real life “DeMayo” family. He came over and chatted for a bit, but the real excitement was when he asked if I ever make  it out to LA? Let me just try!!! He followed by a invitation to the set if I was in the area! I tried to play it like it wasn’t a big deal. Who knows… Only time will tell! The night came to a end and I was on a high, thinking nothing could possibly get any better but I was wrong!

Lesson 6:  Always be grateful for what you have been given and never take experiences for granted. For that, you will receive more than you’ll ever imagined.

As we said our gratitude and goodbyes to Barbara, she extended an invitation to brunch the next day at Vera Bradley’s corporate headquarters on 5th Avenue! I could barely sleep after all the festivities! Next day, we checked out of the beatufiul Quin hotel near Central Park, hopped in an accessible cab and made our way to 5th Avenue, famous for all the major fashion corporate offices… Calvin Klein, Coach, ect. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Vera Bradley’s showroom neighbor was none other than Tommy Hilfiger! (whose offices were being protested with a big unflatable RAT, for higher wage increases we learned.) I don’t believe in plain coincidences without a particular reason! I was meant to be here! The elevator doors opened to an extravagant show room with chandeliers,  decorative wallpaper and gorgeous Vera Bradley merchandise everywhere on glass tables…a fantasy land! Barbara awaited us with open arms ready to give us a tour of next season’s collection.

Did you know that brands usually plan collections two years in advance? Major regional buyers from all over the United States travel to the corporate office in order to buy merchandise for six months out, in this case for the Holiday season. Buyers were looking at the adorable new penguin collection for Christmas when we walked in; others at the new leather line; still others at the newest patterns of luggage.  Soon a gorgeous platter arrived with salads, tiny finger cucumber sandwiches and my favorite, macaroons! For the next hour and half, I had an insider’s perspective of how Vera Bradley’s core values helped shaped its success. Barbara explained how it wasn’t easy at times but with support from family, together made it out on the other side. I received several other invaluable pieces of advice but the two that still ring clear today are…

~ People in hiring roles are always observing your actions. You can learn more about someone from how they treat others than how they treat you.

By the time someone gets to me, I expect them to have all the attributes I am looking for in my corporation. But how they treat others when I’m not around is equally important. I often base my decision on this.” (this directly relates to her hiring practices)

 ~”During college, don’t compromise your creative thinking with “best business practices. Creativity in this business is how you stand out.”

As I look back at this experience and the graciousness Barbara expressed to me, I am humbled and will carry them with me wherever I go. I, too, will just say Hi! to those I meet, and then really listen to what comes next.

 

 

10 Hours Behind the Scenes with “Runway of Dreams”

This month I made my debut on the fashion runway in New York City, a looong way from my little hometown in Florida. Here’s how it really happened… 

​On June 8th at noon, my mom, sister and I made our way from our contemporary hotel in Lower Manhattan to the extravagant Cipriani Club at 25 Broadway in the Financial district, directly across from the Wall Street Bull landmark. (And the defiant Young Girl statue, too!) As I weaved through the masses on the streets, I spotted Debbie (Mindy’s assistant) waving us down from the steps of Cipriani, with its neo-Italian Renaissance architecture — tall columns and detailed etchings in the stone with gold trimming. In reality, it had been the home of a very famous cruise line, Cunard, back over 100 years ago, when NYC was the busiest port in the world.

​I maneuvered through the sea of unassembled gift bags and entered the main room…. breathtaking– beautiful steel gate dividers, fabulous murals, and elegant drapery brushing the 65 foot tall painted dome ceilings The atmosphere was calm and quiet — but not for long! Within a hour there were tech people hoisting lighting, audio crews arranging mics and speakers in the voluminous room, waiters arranging tables and glassware for 600, and all of the models showing up for fittings. This was THE REAL DEAL!!!!

​Debbie walked us down an adjacent hallway past the sound and lightning control booth to the very back where guys were in the process of putting up makeshift dressing rooms.

For the rest of the day, this room would become the beehive for families, models, make-up artists and seamstresses. Just outside it, clothing racks lined the halls, filled with the new Tommy Hilfiger adaptive collection. It was fascinating to see how the design team executed the adaptations; having studied their adaptive designs online, you can’t fully appreciate their focus on detail unless you have the product in your hand. Designing adaptive clothing, surprisingly, requires extreme technical knowledge and innovation to produce the intended results for both ease of dressing and style. Smart and thoughtful designers like this are in great demand to fill the gap for one of the largest underserved minorities in the fashion industry…Did you know that nearly 1 in 5 people in the U. S. alone has a documented disability, about 57 million people?

​Soon, my turn was up for a fitting. The outfit the design team chose for me comprised of a pair of dark skinny jeans, a soft rhinestone-studded gray T-shirt, a navy and red jacket with “Tommy Hilfiger” vertically placed the length of left sleeve, and my favorite… Tommy sneakers! No laces required and so comfortable I wore them for 10 hours! The button and zipper on the jeans were replaced with Velcro and magnets, but from a bystander’s viewpoint, they just looked like regular jeans. The magnets along the shirt’s shoulder seam allowed the head opening to expand for the ease of pulling on the shirt. A seamstress and a member from Tommy’s design team quickly pinned the excess fabric to tailor each garment to fit my specific body type, even though I had sent my body specs to them months before. Every detail, even such as where the t-shirt hem hit my waist, was contemplated. A shorter hem, for example, would allow the jean stitching to be exposed, but a longer hem would prohibit fabric from bunching up in the back. Everything has to look perfect on the runway. And since I wouldn’t try the outfit on again until showtime, they only had this one chance to make the clothes “runway ready.”

​Around 1:30, we migrated to a parlor around the corner of the main entrance where we mingled with the other 23 models and their families. Models ages ranged from 5 to 50 years old, representing many of the beautiful body types in the world: Down’s syndrome, spinal cord injuries, amputees, Intellectual disabilities, and cerebral palsy. As I got to know them throughout the day, I realized each and every one of them was proud, fierce and confident about their own unique body. What a refreshing atmosphere to be able to share common views on the world with people with similar situations. Nobody complained about how they wish their situation was better. Rather, we shared passions to change laws, stereotypes and discussed much more on inclusion of those who are differently abled. One family with a severely impacted son expressed gratitude for their mayor, who personally drove them to this event because they didn’t have accessible transportation. It is these unspoken acts of kindness that we need more of in life.

​As the clock ticked toward 3:00 it was time for makeup and hair before the rehearsal. Organizers were getting a little antsy for rehearsal to begin. And it was getting hard to ignore the presence of video cameras capturing my every move, even while a professional makeup artist applied eyeliner. Before you knew it, my makeup was flawless and my hair dangled in thick curls. A quick look in the mirror to check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and then I hurried off to rehearsal!

Now the real chaos begins! 4:00 pm …It’s two hours until guests arrive and major issues arose with the fluidity of the show. The situation with only one ramp left no room for two wheelchairs to pass on and off the runway, so everything was changing. Staff frantically re-ordered the lineup over and over, so there would be “walkers” between the wheelchairs. By now I was getting used to “DELAINA!” being shouted and pointing for me to move here and move there! This went on at least for an hour. Mindy Scheier loved how my chair stood up and we decided rolling the runway with my own “standing Segway” would be a treat for the guests. The first time I rolled that runway in rehearsal, it got real–real fast! The lights shone on the cavernous room with 600 empty chairs…but soon that would change. My dreams were coming true… to immerse myself into an untapped segment of adaptive fashion in the industry and inspire others that nothing is impossible if you live fearlessly! New York City and the RUNWAY!!!!

​The clock ticked 15 past 5:00 and all of the models still needed to eat something plus change into our newly tailored outfits. We crowded in the back room slamming down pieces of New York pizza while taking turns in dressing rooms. Clothing flying, pizza blending in with the makeup, people ducking under hot hair irons, and wheelchairs bumper to bumper. Heck with this… I had my sister hold up a jacket and changed right there without noticing (until too late) a video guy filming another model while I happened to be in the background. Oh well…! Stylists touched up my hair and I escaped that crazy room as soon as I could.

In the hallway, my sister and I ran into Tobie Hatfield, a guest honoree at the Gala, for his innovation of the Nike’s “FlyEase” adaptive shoe. I remember countless mornings when I was in elementary school, and the struggle to put on shoes over orthotics was oh-too-real. I’m fortunate I don’t have to wear them anymore but for the millions who do, I celebrate when companies like Nike commit to making life easier for ALL its customers. From the half hour we spoke with Tobie, it was rejuvenating to hear how genuine and passionate he was about this shoe and the purpose behind it. He literally walked around cradling the shoe like a baby. Also, I met Matthew, the guy who wrote the letter to Nike and the reason why the FlyEase exists today. He’s a senior at Florida Gulf Coast University, and remains very close with Tobie. While listening to all these amazing people, I learned the world is ready for acceptance of the differently-abled, but it takes a nudge from young bold people like Mathew and all the models that evening to ignite the spark of inclusion. One of my fav models was Rebekah Marine, the “bionic model” who shares her bionic arm prosthetic with the world in a beautiful way. Anna was another of my peers whose personality overcame the loss of her lower limb, and later dazzled on the runway like a pro.

​6:30 p.m. on the dot! I could hear the guests clinking their cocktail glasses around the corner. Happy hour for some, maybe, but modeling is hard work…especially when we had to hold our position in line for 2 more hours. Two hours gives you precious time to observe people, and time for me to reflect on the gratitude I had for this experience. Finally, finally, the speeches had ceased, the awards awarded, and the runway was lit! Showtime! One by one, the models were greeted with encouraging cheers from many of New York’s fashion dignitaries, media, and trendsetters…all in the name of adaptive fashion! Once my #17 turn came and I faced the lights, there was Mindy giving me a reassuring thumbs up…deep breath, short prayer to stay ON the runway, and I was off. No sounds hit my ears, not even my Runway song; “24-karat Gold,” by Bruno Mars! Calmness overtook me as I vamped with turn and poses for the cameras, videos and applause. I WAS ON THE RUNWAY!! If you would have told me one or two years ago that I would have an opportunity to roll the runway in New York City, I definitely would not in a million years believe you.

​Over the past year, my life has changed a lot… going new places, meeting new people, and becoming a Brand Ambassador for the Runway of Dreams Dream Team. It’s the hard work and the FEARLESS INDEPENDENCE to stand up for yourself and others who can’t. It’s being open to life changing opportunities like this that you will remember forever. I’m eternally grateful for my family who goes the extra mile and continually encourages me to be the best person I can be. By rolling the runway, my hope is to show young women of all abilities that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to!

When a frequent buyer becomes a frequent flyer 

After months of planning, The Trip of the Summer is finally here! It was a mere 3 weeks ago, we boarded the same Jet Blue flight for LGA to attend the Design4Disability gala with the Vera Bradley family….a memorable week for sure. In about 24 hours, I will be rolling the runway in NYC at the gorgeous marbled  neo- classical Cipriani on Broadway in Lower Manhattan!! If you know me well,  then you know that I can’t go on another trip without passing up a day at the mall.  A couple days ago, my mom and I went to help my sister find a dress for the gala; My sister and I have a lot in common but shopping isn’t one of them. She tried on many that fit her beautifully, and the final purchase was a gorgeous cocktail dress of gold, pewter and silver. While helping her look, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would  be modeling from the new Tommy Hilfiger adaptive line??  And now… we’re ready for take off in the clouds!

Welcome to Barneys New York 

If you want explore the newest trends in fashion and accessories, Barneys in NYC is the place to go! Prior to attending the Design 4 Disability Gala, I made a special trip to Barney’s to familiarize myself with Derek Lam’s collection, the famous guest designer who would be honored that evening. Barneys is something you would see in movies–doormen, security guards, and even a concierge to help you navigate the nine floors of the finest clothing. The 5th Avenue entrance opened up onto a whole floor of handbags… in every color, designer and style…as well as gorgeous jewelry found only in your dreams. I was in heaven, absorbing the scents of fresh leather, crisp fabric, and airy perfumes that drew you into every floor. My mom and I approached the concierge to find out where we could find Derek Lam’s collection. It was obvious up to that point we were judged as tourists, but after explaining we were guests of his show, the gentleman called up to the third floor and effused; “Angela is waiting to assist you whenever you are ready.” The staff congratulated me on the invite as we headed upwards. One thing is for sure, name dropping gets people moving! The beautiful Angela greeted us wearing a high fashion, orange silk shirtdress and red high heels. Immediately it impressed upon me that she was well educated on the calendar of the production of collections and such. She explained that Barneys would receive the pre-Fall collections in just a few weeks, even as the “pre-sale for Spring” had just begun! She shared a little background on the inspiration for Derek Lam’s collections. Unlike crowded retail stores in malls, each floor is set up spaciously and neatly displayed by designer. Derek’s was along a wall with a’multi-hued assortment of jackets, blouses and pants, all showcasing simplistic elegance. I especially admired his attention to detail of seams and trims, and his choice of unique but wearable fabrics.
The entire experience left me even more inspired to learn as much as possible about the fascinating world of fashion! 

Vera Bradley, New York City & Me

About 2 weeks ago, it all started with an email from the executive assistant to Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, the co-founder of Vera Bradley whom I met at a women’s seminar at UF a month before. She was inviting my mom and i to be her special guests at the Designs for Disabilities Gala in NYC this Tuesday night! I was Speechless!” The Gala will showcase several top young designers from Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology in an adaptive fashion competition that pairs them with major designers in the industry such as Derek Lam. This is truly my niche in the world of business, fashion, and media, so we had to say YES!! Especially because the evening is a benefit for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation!

In addition to the runway show, the evening will include recognition for the ABC TV show Speechless, and I’m told the cast will be there to accept awards (Minnie Driver, Micah Fowler), as well as Nike, Comedian Zachary Anner, Microsoft and many others!

I am truly grateful for my parents who are coming with me and who are making this amazing trip possible! I promise to highlight our visit on this blog site

Rolling Down The Runway… Of Dreams

In February 2016, as I was nearing high school graduation, I contacted

Runway of Dreams in New York City to seek valuable mentorship in the

break-through business of adaptive fashion, a passion I had been

developing since 9th grade. A couple of months later, the assistant to

the founder of the company reached out to me explaining that Mindy

Scheier was fascinated with my passion for adaptive fashion as I myself

have a disability. This led to their invitation to New York City for the

first ever Runway of Dreams/Tommy Hilfiger fashion show and Gala. The

event raised well over $600,000! while there I met icons of the industry

as well as publicists, designers and even sat next to Kay Unger, the

chairman of the board of Parsons School of Design, and a famous designer

herself. The evening led to a writing collaboration with Women¹s

ENews/Teen Fuse, a global online reporter of all things women and girls.

That article was published in September 2016 (a link in shown on the home

page), and gave me instant credibility! I didn’t think anything could

possibly get better than this but I was wrong. This would not be the

last time that our paths would cross!
I’m excited to announce, the Runway of Dreams team have asked me to

model in their second annual Gala at the historic Cipriani Wall Street

venue in New York City this summer. Of course I said YES! How can you

say “NO”to such an amazing opportunity? Major name brand companies will

be there supporting Runway of Dreams such as Tommy Hilfiger, Inc. and the

brand owner, PVH. Other honorees include Tobie Hatfield who designed the

adaptive Nike shoes to easily fit over orthotics, as well as Kyle

Maynard, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro as a quad amputee. Over the past six

months, I have kept in contact with Runway of Dreams to help with any

preparations for the show. They are designing pieces specifically for

each model. I’m curious to find out what I will be wearing as I roll down

the runway! Well, I will find out in less than a month. Mark your

calendars I¹ll post pictures on this blog site! The big event is on June

8th!!!!!