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Brianna Paauwe: Music Festivals Helped Me Accept My Disability

As a person who uses a wheelchair, music festivals are the last place where I would think I would feel pride for my disability. Not so for Brianna Paauwe.

Brianna had an altering car accident 11 years ago. It wasn't until attending music festivals and feeling a part of a community that she found her purpose to help people.

She now works for a foundation that supports people with disabilities, including through the world's first fitness app, made for wheelchair users by wheelchair users.

Connect with Brianna:

The Fitness App: Wheel With Me Fitness

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:

Brianna Paauwe.mp3

Peta [00:00:00] Before we get started this week, there's a little bit of a discussion about weight loss. If that's a trigger for you, please skip this episode. Also, I might sound a little bit different. I apologise. I'm doing my best to try and get the echo out of this audio, but I'm sitting in a different studio today. Regardless, the conversation with Bray is absolutely amazing, so I hope you enjoy it.

Peta [00:00:31] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have Briana Power to speak with us all the way on the other side of the world in the US. She had an accident about 11 years ago and she now has a physical disability. I can't wait for you to hear her perspective on being a wheelchair user. So without any further ado, let's hand over to Brianna.

Brianna [00:01:16] Hi. Thanks so much for having me. My name is Brianna. Howie and I live over here in North Carolina in the U.S.. I was not born disabled. I had about 11 years ago. In 2011, I was in a car accident that left me paralysed from the waist down. So, I mean, I made a poor decision of drinking and driving, and I was going a little bit too fast. But luckily, I had my seatbelt on. But where my lap band was holding me on across my lap, that is where my back broke. So I am paralysed from my belly button down.

Peta [00:01:49] That's such a life altering event. How did you get to the place that you are now and what sort of techniques and strategies if you implemented to get here?

Brianna [00:02:00] I have to say that I'm a pretty positive person. I've always been a pretty optimistic human in general. So when I got into my act and then they told me that I was going to be permanently in a wheelchair, I didn't really let that thought slow me down too much. I was I was obviously like, okay, this is a huge change. And I grieved and I was sad, but at the same time I'm like, How am I going to make this work? It took a few years for myself. I didn't I didn't go to work. I didn't go to school or anything. I just lived my life. I travelled a little bit. I went to music festivals and that that's kind of really what got it going is getting into music festivals and being around all these people wanted me to help more people because, you know, when you're around, a lot of people in an event like that, you're just kind of used to helping those around you. And that's kind of where my passion grew and that's kind of where my healing kind of started was at the music events. Everyone was very accepting of me and my wheelchair. They were very helpful and I was like, This is a really great energy and I can't wait to share this with someone else because I know not everyone in the disability community has that kind of support. That first night I went back out and the people were just so happy to see me. They're just like, Wow, I was really excited that you're here. We're so happy to see you out. And that's what kept me going on all those hard days when when the disability stuff got really heavy or really annoying. I would think about those moments and think about how like getting out and about can really just just me going to a concert can inspire people. It was a big transition. It took me took me a little bit to figure out this new life. But honestly, this is I think this is the life that I was always meant to live. I was always meant down this path. And now I use my disability to share my story and help other people live a better life.

Peta [00:03:52] I can really appreciate why you would want to go back to festivals so early in your injury because it probably felt like a connexion to your old self as well. Like the disability hasn't changed me. It's just changed a few elements of how I navigate the world.

Brianna [00:04:11] I knew there was going to be things that I'd have to change in my life, but there is still pieces of the old pre that I knew I was never going to have to give up. And my love of music and dancing is absolutely one of them.

Peta [00:04:22] I obviously do quite a bit of research on people before I have them here on the podcast. And one thing that kept coming up was your involvement with a fitness app that's accessible for people with disabilities. I was wondering whether you could talk to me a little bit about that. It's super exciting.

Brianna [00:04:40] Oh, I would absolutely love to. So with me, fitness started by my roommate and also my boss. She just started as a support group for other wheelchair users who just wanted to connect about fitness and just try to be healthier. So now we have the first fitness app and it's available on the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. It's called Walk Me Fitness. It is created for wheelchair users by wheelchair users. And our goal is to keep adding more exercises. But not only that, but more faces. So as you as you shared with me that your disability is different than mine, you have cerebral palsy. Mine's a spinal cord injury. So our goal is to represent all of us in this app. So we're going to show a very good variety to show as many people in the wheelchair community. Good representation. We want them to be seen in our app so that they can feel comfortable getting fit and staying healthy and independent.

Peta [00:05:37] Yeah. It's certainly an industry that I felt. Like quite intimidated to engage with. Because when you think about the marketing surrounding health and fitness intrinsically, that doesn't include people that can't walk or stand or for. So thank you for creating the app. It's really amazing. So what sort of fitness activities can you do on the app?

Brianna [00:06:03] We have separate resistance bands. We have just cardio movements, which is just weightless stuff. We have mobility and stretching, so you can just kind of keep those muscles loose either before the end of the day. We do even have a section for strength training, so if you want to actually do a little bit of muscle building, we have some like weight training stuff and then we also even have a section of workouts in bed because we know that some individuals do kind of rely on help from other people or they need a caregiver to help get out of bed. So we wanted to give them the option of being able to do it without any without even getting in their chair. I've had a couple, couple of shoulder issues over the summer, and it was just really easy for me to to lay in bed and get get a little bit of movement in that I needed during the day.

Peta [00:06:51] That's really fantastic of you to acknowledge that not everybody has the privilege of being able to get out of bed every day. So that that's amazing. His fitness always been a big part of your life. Was this been an ongoing process for you in discovering who you are post injury?

Brianna [00:07:10] Actually, it wasn't always a really big part of my life, but even before my car accident. I was always just a little bit overweight. After the accident, I didn't put any really effort into being healthy or eating healthy or getting movement in and stuff. So I just kind of slowly progressed. On putting on more weight. And that's when I actually found Real with Me Foundation, the non-profit that I currently work with now and they have some fitness instructor is doing free workouts and I did the free workouts with them and I was like, Wow, this is actually a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. I'm Helgesen I've ever been even before my accident, which is is really great. That's kind of why I wanted to share my story with other people, is because if I can do it, anyone can do it. I'm not that special. That's that's something that I tell people a lot is I'm just. I'm just a normal girl in a wheelchair. And if I can get this stuff done or anyone else can, and I just want to help them if that's what they want.

Peta [00:08:08] And is the app available outside of the US?

Brianna [00:08:12] Oh, absolutely. We actually have subscribers in Australia already. We have some in the UK. We do have a couple workouts recorded in Spanish for the individuals who are in Argentina, which I thought was really cool. So we do have some bilingual workouts in there.

Peta [00:08:30] I want to go back to the transition between being an able bodied person and somebody with a disability. I've noticed in your previous interviews that you often say that you're a wheelchair user, that having a disability or being disabled. Is that just a cultural difference between the US and Australia, or is that something that you're more comfortable referring to yourself as?

Brianna [00:08:58] It might be a cultural difference, but I think for me personally it's because I'm just so heavily involved with wheelchair users specifically. So we just kind of I just I've just gotten very used to using that term for myself as a wheelchair user. And it wasn't anything about the term being disabled because there is times where I am absolutely proud of identifying as an individual with disabilities or a student with a disability. But no, I just think it's just more of a comfort thing for me. I'm just I'm a wheelchair user. I'm just I don't maybe I don't see myself as disabled. Maybe maybe it's just an unconscious thing because I actually thought of that question when you sent me, when you sent me the email, and I was like, No, is it so maybe I should journal about that later. But at the moment I just think was thinking I'm comfortable with wheelchair user.

Peta [00:09:48] Whatever is good for you is okay. Now that you're part of this community, whether you be part of the wheelchair user community or the disability community, how has your perception changed from an able bodied person to somebody being a part of this community? Has your perception changed on what it is to have a disability and what that means?

Brianna [00:10:13] I definitely think before my eye was injured and before I became disabled, I had different views of it. I never really interacted with anyone with a disability, so I never had the chance to learn about the disabled community beforehand. But once I got injured, I did notice that I had some assumptions about myself. So when the when I was still in the hospital, I'm like, oh, I'm not going to be a champ anymore. I'm not going to go hiking. I just kept focussing on all the things I didn't think that I was going to be able to do without, you know, quote unquote, working legs. And it wasn't even the community that changed that mindset for me. It was my friends. It was just my regular friends that are like, You know what? If you want to go camping, we're going to get you camping. If you want to go on a road trip, we'll help you. And they they made that possible. You don't think of how you're going to have to relearn how to dress or if you're going to be able to reach the baking powder on the top shelf if you just randomly want to make something. I'm going to need help taking a shower for a little bit. I'm going to need help learning how to get back into bed. That was hard because I didn't want to ask for help. But then I realised that it's okay to ask for help sometimes, you know? And if I, if I can plan ahead a little bit, like maybe I won't be able to just stop what I'm doing and make those pumpkin bars today. But if I'm like, all right, I'm going to plan today and get everything out for tomorrow, and that's what I that's what I would do is I'd make a list with my mom when I get home, I'd be like, Hey, can you get the stuff down before you leave tomorrow? So then when I would wake up and everything ready to go and I didn't have to struggle as much. Then when I finally became involved in the disability community, in the wheelchair community, that's when I was just really inspired by the community itself. I was like, okay, well all of these people are comfortable sharing their wins, sharing their losses, sharing their struggles, sharing how they overcame things. That's when I was like, Okay, well, it's my age. It's my time to do the same. I didn't actually get involved in the disability community until last January in 2021, so it was almost ten years and I lived in a very small town in Wisconsin. We didn't have a very large rehab centre, so I wasn't able to connect with anyone right off the bat while I was relearning new stuff. I never really searched for it, I guess I didn't think I needed any friends in wheelchairs. I was like, No, I'll be fine. I can navigate this on my own. And then it was after was during cold winter, after COVID, when we're all just kind of locked up and just really isolated. I found, like I said, I feel most free events now. It's like, okay, well I'm going to connect with some other people. And that's, yeah, I was, I was almost ten years in. I finally found the community and I was like, okay, this is really cool. And I saw the amount of support groups that were going on. And I just I was I was a little sad that I had waited so long, but then I had to realise at some point that this is it was meant to happen at that right time. But I'm glad I finally found a community.

Peta [00:13:08] What do you love about being a wheelchair user? I'll say wheelchair user.

Brianna [00:13:16] I guess I love the creativity it gives me, you know, and the resilience that I have. I like being, you know, I don't know if people are going to see their stuff, but I have bright pink hair and so I like being loud and different, whether that's with my appearance or with my words itself. I'm a very outspoken person and I wasn't always like that. Before my chair, I was a little more shy, but I think the chair gave me gave me my voice. And that's what I love about being in a chair. It's giving me the freedom. It wasn't confidence right away. It took time to build the confidence. But I feel like it gave me a freedom to just kind of own it all. On on the bad days. On the good days, on my really happy self. I just. I really just owned who I was.

Peta [00:14:02] And is there anything you don't like about being a wheelchair user?

Brianna [00:14:06] The accessibility and the inclusion doesn't seem to be as important as a lot of the other issues right now. And it's hard to discuss, you know, what side of the fence we're on politically or how we feel about different different policy making when we can't even get a seat at the table. Because that, I think is the biggest, as I'm sure you know, the biggest hassle of being someone with a disability or especially a mobile device user. So it's not even just wheelchairs, but even those with like canes, crutches and the walkers and things like that.

Peta [00:14:40] Yeah. Access is a systemic issue. I feel like regardless of what country you live in or even whether you live in a city or live rurally, it's such an issue. Like, I live in the city and I can't go into my local bakery because that's a step. Do people actually. Are they open for us to to listen to us, hear perspectives, give us positions of power? Because a lot of us are educated. And it just goes to show that the low expectations of who we are as people is such an issue.

Brianna [00:15:20] That is one reason why I was really excited to start sharing my story not only in the disability community but in just society in general is because there are so many people in our community that are so smart and so valuable. There's a couple of quadriplegics that I've gone to, gone to university who have very smart minds. They can't move their bodies at all. And when people probably look at them, they probably think they have such a terrible life. But realistically, they're intelligent. They have so much to offer and their lives are full. We live very full lives. When I'm back to school in 2014, a few years after my accident, and I focus my study on human services, criminal justice and social work. So all of all of my education is pretty much geared on helping people at this point. That's the kind of misconception I want to break. I want to I want to show people that we are more than just our mobility aid or disability label. We are what we have to offer.

Peta [00:16:27] I think the best way to end this conversation is to think about the future. So what do you hope for in the future for people with disabilities?

Brianna [00:16:37] My hopes for the future is that people in the community kind of start changing their mindset a little bit, that our community community can be a really dark place. Sometimes there can be a lot of negativity. We can get stuck in the trap of thinking that we can't or that we're only we were only as capable as what society says we are. I went a lot of years thinking I was only as capable of what the PS and the doctors told me. And I hope that people are willing to push past that, and I hope that they're willing to challenge that a little bit. It's not easy breaking out of those negative mindsets. I've I've spent the last two years working on it, and there's days where I slip and I fall right back into it. It's very easy to slip back into it. But like I said, if you can work on that mental and that mental strength and just really focus on positivity. Read some personal development books. That's something that we do in our in our fitness group as we read ten pages every single day. And even just that little daily habit has changed my life immensely. So what I hope for the community is that they have have courage and faith to pour into themselves so we can show the community what we really are capable of and what we have to value. At least here in the United States, there are some wheelchair users doing some really amazing projects, and I just can't wait for society to see that and to make that a little bit more normalised. There's nobody like more movies about wheelchair users. There is in L.A. there is a whole wheelchair dance group called the Rollouts. And so I hope things like that are more more normalised. But we can see that we aren't just people who are disabled. We are just as valuable as everyone else. And like you said, we deserve a seat at the table.

Peta [00:18:22] Thank you so much for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, could you please leave a rating and review? If you listen on Apple Podcasts or follow this show, if you listen on Spotify, Google, Amazon or any other platform you find this podcast on, it all helps more people find the podcast. Thanks again for listening. And until next week. Have a good one, guys. Find.


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