Brittany Rieman’s life changed forever on St. Patrick’s Day in 2018.
She had just wrapped up her night shift as a bartender at a club in Virginia, a grueling day full of holiday revelers. Rieman struggled with alcohol addiction and opiate abuse, and had been using that night to take the edge off.
When she began to make the drive back home, Rieman fell asleep at the wheel. Her car sped over railroad tracks and slid down a 6-foot embankment. She survived the crash, but it damaged her spinal cord. Rieman has used a wheelchair ever since.
“I broke one bone and that was my bone that paralyzed me,” Rieman said.
Now, three years later, Rieman, 33 and a resident of Waldorf, is the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Maryland. She is competing this week in the national Ms. Wheelchair America competition, a contest that turns the conventions of a pageant on its head, trading swimsuit competitions and analyses of physical beauty for rounds of rigorous interviews and quizzes on Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.
The goal of the competition: find a national spokeswoman for wheelchair users and people with disabilities.
When Rieman was first approached by Shannon Minnick, assistant coordinator of Ms. Wheelchair Maryland and Ms. Wheelchair District of Columbia, about entering the 2020 Maryland competition, her response was simple: “I am not a pageant girl.”
But after she heard about the competition’s emphasis on activism — and that the winner would get a statewide, and potentially national, platform to advocate for their cause of choice — Rieman entered, determined to share her story.
The state competition has been around since 1972, and Maryland is the only state that has competed in the national competition every year since its inception, according to Minnick.
Competitors range from women such as Rieman who are in a wheelchair as a result of injuries, to women born with conditions that have required them to use a wheelchair for most of their lives.
Katie Bruckmann, 30, is representing Washington, D.C., in the national competition. An English as a second language and special education teacher, Bruckmann was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spine and spinal cord don’t completely form. She was inspired to compete by one of her students who has the same condition.
“I wanted to be someone a young girl could look up to,” Bruckmann said.
While competing does include a tiara and sash, Rieman said her favorite part of the program has been meeting women in wheelchairs of all backgrounds and learning about what they are advocating for.
Each competitor chooses a specific issue within the disability community to speak and write about, ranging from pushing for improved wheelchair accommodations at doctors’ offices to supporting people of color in the disability community.
“It’s another way for women in wheelchairs to feel like they still have a voice and that they can be heard,” Rieman said.
Rieman, who got involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous through her recovery, has focused on advocating for addiction awareness both within and outside of the disability community.
A 2018 study by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research found that people with disabilities are at a higher risk to abuse opioids and may be less likely to get help for substance abuse than people without disabilities.
When her accident in 2018 left her paralyzed, Rieman did not immediately seek help for alcoholism or substance abuse, something she said she used to cope with past trauma in her life.
“My addiction still flourished,” Rieman said.
For another year after the accident, she continued to abuse opiates and narcotics, which had become more accessible to her thanks to regular doctors’ visits and the chronic pain caused by her spinal cord injury.
“I thought, ‘Well, I have the golden ticket. I can go to a pharmacy, I don’t have to buy it on the street,’” Rieman said.
But after the anniversary of her accident, Rieman, a mother of three, began to seek help for substance abuse.
“My kids don’t deserve not having their mom. I felt sorry for myself — the guilt, you know, what I did to myself,” Rieman said. “I put myself in this wheelchair because of my addiction. But I also used this wheelchair for my addiction and I don’t want that either.”
During the first year in her chair, Rieman had started to meet other women in wheelchairs and form a sense of community.
“My story and what I’ve done and how I’ve gotten here, I know other people can relate,” Rieman said. “There are so many different dynamics in my advocacy that can touch so many people in so many different ways — the mental health aspect of it, having traumatic experiences and understanding why people use opiates or alcohol or any substance to deal with traumatic situations.”
Rieman now works as a transition specialist with Accessible Resources for Independence, an organization providing support services to people with disabilities in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, and recently helped launch Great Escape Recovery Lounge, a meeting spot for 12-step recovery programs located in Waldorf.
Minnick, who has gone on to act as a mentor to Rieman, said she is proud of Rieman’s activism.
“Brittany is showing individuals with disabilities that it’s all possible,” Minnick said. “She’s a mother, she drives ... That’s the greatest thing people can learn, that people with disabilities are people.”
As the reigning state officeholder, Rieman travels to events throughout the state and country, jetting off to a retreat with the Rollettes wheelchair dance team in Los Angeles, then taking a tour of the spine center at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore weeks later.
During Rieman’s visit, Linda Prudente, marketing director at Kennedy Krieger, said it’s powerful to see Rieman act as an ambassador for people with disabilities.
“One of the things we strive for here is integration into the community,” Prudente said. “A disability doesn’t mean that you’re disabled. That word is really falling out of favor.”