This story was originally published for The Clermont Sun on September 19, 2019 and is reprinted with permission from the editor.
Written by Brett Milam, Editor, The Clermont Sun
Isabella Burton at UC Clermont College is breaking barriers and barely braking in her advocacy for those in wheelchairs.
Athletics? Check. Academics? Check. Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2019? Check.
At 20 years of age, Isabella is just getting started, as she represented Ohio in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant in July.
Ms. Wheelchair USA originally started as a state contest in Ohio 22 years ago, and then branched out to the national stage to “recognize that all women, despite any disability can be beautiful, feel glamorous and be self-confident.”
The program is sponsored by The Dane Foundation, a 501C3 organization, that aims to bring public awareness and understanding of individuals with developmental and physical disabilities, and also providing “things” as a support source, things such as toilet paper, clothing, learning toys and more to help provide life’s “daily comforts.”
To learn more, visit http://thedanefoundation.org/home.html.
Isabella became Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2019 with a platform of spreading awareness to wheelchair sports and athletes. She took that platform to Cleveland for the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant competition — and she emphasizes that point.
“It might just be a paper application, but it’s very competitive,” Isabella said.
The main aspect of the application was detailing a platform. Isabella’s platform was built on the slogan that an “athlete is an athlete — whether they use their feet, or take a seat.”
At the pageant, Isabella had a few minutes to talk about her platform.
“Wheelchair sports allow students to be a part of a team, and being part of a team builds self-confidence and it makes the disabled student feel like everyone else,” she said.
Wheelchair sports is a relatively recent activity established in Ohio in 2012, with four events each year for boys and girls in high school track: the 100-meter, the 400-meter, the 800-meter, and the seated shot put.
When those events first started, there was only one female, seated athlete in Ohio, but by 2018, 10 girls participated in the seated track events.
Isabella was the first wheelchair athlete at Batavia High School and in the greater Cincinnati region. She represented the school three consecutive years at Ohio’s Track and Field state meet.
“I felt like I was included for the first time,” she said.
But it’s not cheap: the average cost for a racing wheelchair is $3,000, presenting a “huge obstacle” to participation for seated athletes.
That’s one of the reasons Isabella wants to bring awareness to athletics: to encourage local businesses to sponsor racing wheelchairs for athletes.
She also likes to swim because she can walk in the water.
“It also just feels wonderful,” she said.
An early life of walking and surgeries
Isabella was born with spina bifida, a birth defect where there is incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord. Upon birth, Isabella’s spine was exposed. Two surgeries later, by two-years-old, Isabella was walking, and did so up until age 13.
More back surgeries led to use of a wheelchair for mobility and comfort, however.
But spina bifida is not Isabella, and the wheelchair is not Isabella. She wants people to see beyond a wheelchair, but it hasn’t always been easy.
When she returned to Batavia Middle School at 13-years-old with the wheelchair, people started looking at her differently, and they weren’t nice, she said.
“So it was very hard to adjust,” she said. “They would stare, they would make fun of me, act like I couldn’t do anything on my own. It was definitely a hard time, especially in middle school.”
But tattooed on her left arm is the saying, “Fall down seven, stand up eight!”
Isabella explained that it means to never give up.
And that’s what Isabella did, coming to see her use of a wheelchair in the way Rick Hansen, a Canadian parapalegic athlete who advocates for people with disabilities, described it:
“The wheelchair should not be a symbol of disability. A wheelchair is a vehicle to liberation and freedom; a chariot for independence.”
But the community isn’t always accommodating of that independence, as some businesses and areas still remain inaccessible or inconvenient for wheelchairs.
“There still are some challenges, like a lot of the businesses in town, they’re not wheelchair accessible. And that’s been one of the hardest things to adjust to,” she said. “You don’t think of it when you’re not in a wheelchair.”
Isabella said she’s not rude to people who ask to help her, but she typically responds, “I have this.”
For her junior and senior years of high school, Isabella went to Live Oaks Vocational School.
Live Oaks was a better fit than Batavia because it’s where Isabella “found her place, well, kind of,” she said.
“Live Oaks, people didn’t know me before I got in a wheelchair. So it was a fresh start for me and I needed that,” she said.
At UC Clermont College, where she is currently a junior, and works at the Student Activity Center, Isabella said she has “truly found her place.”
“This has been an awesome school for me,” she said.
Clermont College’s small campus, although not “too small,” allows for more community, and it’s relatively wheelchair accessible, Isabella said.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of the staff. I love the staff,” she said.
Moving onward and upward
Nowadays, through the Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati, as well as Ms. Wheelchair Ohio, which she passed her crown on in September, Isabella gets a chance to talk to people, educate them, and share her story.
With an eye to eventually trying the pageant again, Isabella said those speaking engagements help her get more comfortable with public speaking, something pivotal to success at the pageant.
Initially interested in social work and helping those with addiction, Isabella changed her major recently to paralegal work as a criminal justice attorney.
“I decided that’sjust not for me. I’m too much of a tender-heart to go into that,” she said. “I kind of wanted to work with either addicts or kids, but with being social work, you have to deal with those kids that are in bad situations and I just could not handle that.”
Isabella’s always been interested in police, fire and EMS she said. She loves watching “Live PD” on A&E Network, which shadows police departments around the country.
“That’s the only thing I will let it [my wheelchair]stop me from doing, is being a police officer,” she said.
Breaking glass ceilings isn’t without its struggles, though. Isabella still has her moments where she wishes she could walk.
“There are many times where I wish I could go back. I have a little strength to walk, but I have to walk with a walker,” she said. “There are definitely days where I just wish I could just hop up on my feet and walk, especially when the places aren’t wheelchair accessible.”
But other than that, Isabella said she doesn’t mind being in the wheelchair.
“I just think to myself how wonderful it is that there’s something like this for people with disabilities.”
Isabella said she is working on getting her strength back, and eventually walk one day.
“It’s been a tough road trying to get back up on my feet, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” she said.