Reveca Torres talks with Joe McTigue, one of the participants of Reinventing the Wheel. Photo by Amie Zimmerman

Reveca Torres talks with Joe McTigue, one of the participants of Reinventing the Wheel. Photo by Amie Zimmerman

Inspiration struck Chicago member Reveca Torres when she was attending a fashion show. The show was hosted by Imerman Angels, an organization dedicated to providing one-on-one peer support for cancer survivors and fighters. Torres, who has used a wheelchair since being paralyzed at 13, immediately saw the program’s applicability for SCI.

“I thought, wow this is such an amazing and easy concept and it could be so beneficial to so many people,” she re calls.

Thatrealization led her to co-found Backbones, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to connecting people with spinal cord injuries and raising awareness of spinal cord injuries in creative and fun ways. In the three-plus years since its founding, Backbones has grown from its Chicago origins to having a strong presence in other cities, and it has fostered one-on-one pair ups nationwide. In addition to hosting scavenger hunts, 5Ks and other social events, this year Backbones is launching one of its most ambitious projects yet: a traveling photography exhibit entitled Reinventing the Wheel.

The exhibit got its start when Torres and her Backbones coworkers searched for positive images of wheelchair users for their website.

“We were looking for images for the website and everything we saw was just horrible,” she says. “It was either people looking like they needed help, or looking sickly, or it was over-inspirational. I said, this is ridiculous, we need to have some real, positive images out there.”

Torres ended up hiring a photographer at the time, but the idea of a book showcasing real images of wheelchair users had been planted. In 2012 the book idea evolved into a photo exhibit, and Torres set out to find 22 photographers to photograph 22 different people with SCI. All the subjects had different injuries and had been paralyzed for different lengths of time, while the photographers came from a number of different

“My initial idea was I wanted the photographers to not know anything about spinal cord injury and have them come into this and learn from this experience and share how this experience has changed them as well,” she says. “We let the photographers have creative freedom as to what kind of images they could take. Their only guideline was that their photos had to show the story of the person in a positive way, highlighting ability.”

The results have surpassed her expectations, and sometimes surprised her. She said in addition to the photographers developing an understanding of SCI, many of the subjects had grown more confident. The show launched in Chicago at the end of June and will be headed to Portland, Ore., in October. Torres says she is working on shows in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere.

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