Kim Harrison, an NSCIA member from Douglasville, Georgia and past participant in Roll on Capitol Hill, proves that each of us has the ability to be effective self-advocates and make a difference in our communities.
In October 2004, Harrison was on a business trip in Dallas, TX when she awoke in her hotel room to what seemed to be a minor case of “pins and needles” in her right foot.
“At first I thought it was just a pinched nerve, but I could slowly feel the numbness creeping up my leg. I could barely walk,” says Harrison.
She was rushed to the ER and 5 days later, after a barrage of tests, the docs discovered she had transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.
“I was staring at my medical chart in disbelief. Written across the front was ‘Paraplegic’. That wasn’t me. I had gone from being a perfectly healthy 45 year-old to having to use a wheelchair and walker in a matter of hours,” she says.
Although determined to stay positive, many new challenges awaited Harrison back home in Georgia. After a short hospital stay and a week of rehab, she tried to regain some normalcy in her life. Harrison soon returned to work, but her clunky wheelchair was working against her.
Harrison admits that getting the right wheelchair to fit her critical needs and lifestyle was not easy, even with private insurance. “It seemed like an endless game with insurance providers and doctors. They think they can just give you a 60 lb. piece of junk on wheels and you’ll be able to use it just fine.”
The long battle hardened her and motivated her to be persistent in everything she did. Last year, Harrison petitioned the state of Georgia to create Transverse Myelitis Awareness Day, which takes place annually on February 15th.
“I wrote many letters and made a few personal visits to the senate building, but people took notice. It was a great feeling to know I was able to make a difference,” she says.
Her motivation in establishing a Georgia Transverse Myelitis Awareness Day was to bring attention to a disease that is relatively rare and frequently misdiagnosed. By raising awareness Harrison hopes to see greater funding being directed towards research and enhancing the quality of life of those affected by this spinal cord disease, for which there is no treatment or cure.
Along with her efforts to increase public awareness, Harrison participates in a variety of adaptive sports offered at the Shepherd Center rehab hospital in Atlanta. She also holds down a new job working at Lowe’s as a distribution administrator, beating out over 390 other applicants for the position.
“The job hunt was grueling. I would have to stake out places a day before my interview to see if they were accessible. Sometimes I would roll in with my wheelchair and the employer would just have this panicked look on their face. There was no way most companies would even consider hiring me. But they would never flat out tell you that,” explains Harrison.
She adds, “Getting hired was like winning the Olympics. It improved my self-esteem and kept me focused on the positive. But I got lucky. Many people with disabilities aren’t as fortunate. Now, I’m really focused on helping others find jobs that are in same boat as I was.”
Harrison, who has attended Roll on Capitol Hill the past two years, sees great value in the event.
“Roll on Capitol Hill proves that we all have a voice and that each one of us has the power to change policies that affect our independence. You just have to lift your head up, look in the mirror and say ‘I can do it’,” she says.
Harrison credits Roll on Capitol Hill with teaching her how to be a better self-advocate and how to use her personal experiences living with a disability as means of getting the attention of policy makers. She also has made some lasting friendships.
At the 2013 Roll, Harrison focused on persuading legislators to strengthen employment opportunities for all people with disabilities––whether they use wheelchairs or live with hidden disabilities.