CURE NATION: Perhaps due to the enforced quarantine of the last few months, I was thrilled to get a writing assignment interviewing a dynamic – and quite lovely – young woman determined to shape the future according to her dreams. By the time the interview hour arrived, I had found plenty of on-line information about Sara Gaver: activist, pageant contestant and Floridian working to improve things in her adopted state. In fact, judging by her internet identity, Sara Gaver appears, at age 27, too good to be true.
In our Zoom call, Sara appears in flawless make up without a hair out of place. This was in sharp contrast to my own yoga pants/pajama Covid work attire. In post-pandemic work etiquette, a hairbrush and Chapstick stands in for home office grooming, so it was impressive to see Sara holding the line of professionalism.
Upon my mentioning my search for ‘the real girl online’ however, Sara giggled. “Growing up, my Mom and Dad and younger brother were my support system. I was never treated differently; I was raised just like a normal kid. When my little brother duct-taped me to my wheelchair, it was just like any little brother tormenting his older sister. We’d go down the block, and as he’d ride his bike, I’d wheel along with him.”
Sara was born with a rare condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, the result of which is that she uses a power wheelchair and has no use of her legs. Although she suffers the attendant contractures and spasms that can accompany paralysis, she doesn’t let anything stop her.
On our Zoom call, Sara demonstrates: “I can only lift my arms about 4 inches off my lap. For example, I paint, but I hold the brush in my mouth. In fact, I teach a virtual art class with my best friend and pageant sister on Facebook for people who paint in whatever way that they are able.”
Advocating for Others In National American and Ms. Wheelchair Pageants
Sara’s journey into activism began early, as she was only 16 when she auditioned for the National American Miss pageant. Not being familiar with the nuances of the different pageant systems, I ask how her experience in the able-bodied pageants differ from the Ms. Wheelchair pageants. Surprisingly to me, the differences are startling. In some pageants such as Miss Florida USA 2021 where Sara is next competing, there is still a bathing suit competition. “I’m ready!”
Sara states firmly. “The Miss Florida USA organization is looking for women who are ‘confidently beautiful’ and I have worked very hard to be just that.”
The Ms. Wheelchair America pageants are different, Sara explains. “All pageants advocate speaking ability, but the exterior beauty of contestant is not the focus in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageants. For the able-bodied pageants like Miss Florida USA, I found myself among lots of beautifully tall, skinny, athletic women where I felt like I didn’t fit in! It was really intimidating at first, and suddenly I felt like I was back in middle school: ‘pity the poor girl in wheelchair who just wants to fit in.’ “
Well, sure, wouldn’t we all feel intimidated amid the fashion models, I think to myself? Sara answers my unspoken question:
“Then I remembered – there’s a reason why I’m here. Every pageant makes a woman grow, so what do I want to get out of it?”
Sara had a bigger goal, one that took the focus off herself.
“At that point, the judges had never seen a girl in a wheelchair in this pageant before. So, I just thought, it doesn’t matter if I win, as long as I make it normal for other girls with disabilities to compete in these pageants. “
Advocating for Others in the Community
While still in college, Sara got the idea to push for not just “accessible” playgrounds, but “inclusive” playgrounds. Sara explains the difference, and it is a big one. “Most people think that the terms are the same, but the difference is huge! An accessible playground means that someone can get their wheelchair inside the yard but can’t necessarily access the equipment. With an inclusive playground you have ramps instead of steps. There is sensory equipment at sitting level, swings for adults and platform swings that accommodate wheelchairs. And the surfaces are made with rubber tar instead of tanbark or mulch!”
The transplanted Pennsylvanian glows, “I’m very lucky in where I live – Jacksonville is a very forward-thinking city. A lot of places are already accessible and there are already two inclusive playgrounds. Leadership is so ready to fight for you here.”
In 2018, Sara founded WheelLifeConnections, a movement to bridge the gap between those in and out of the disability community. “Become fearless, stay motivated and always push for more, “says Sara, “that’s my message to the world.” Her next goal? “I have a children’s book in mind; I want to publish my first book. I’ve done zip lining, water skiing, indoor sky diving, played power soccer and I love surfing. I broke my arm water skiing so I wouldn’t repeat that one, but I would do the others again. “
Pursuing What “Can’t” Be Done
Sara speaks passionately about Cure Medical donating 10% of their net profits to medical research in pursuit of a cure for SCI and CNS/D. “To me it is very important. I love that they continue to fund other organizations to build on research. Figuring out the solution to paralysis does require funding! Cure creates independence and gives back – people who may not even need their products will still be impacted by Cure’s donations in the community.”
For the longest time I didn’t like who I am. I didn’t like my legs because the message I got from many people was, ‘You can’t do it, Sara!’ If it happened now my response would be, ‘Grab your popcorn, sit back and enjoy, because you’re going to have a great show just watching me do it!’”
You can find Sara on Facebook and Instagram as Wheellifeconnections or emailed at Wheellifeconnections@gmail.com.