After battling back, the crowning touch


Janice Jackson knew that people who use wheelchairs could lead happy lives. Her brother had shown her that. What she didn't know was that three years after he was hit by a car while standing on a street corner, the same thing would happen to her.

When Ms. Jackson was 24, a driver lost control of his car and struck her -- leaving her partially paralyzed and using a wheelchair. Initially, doctors told her she would only be able to shrug her shoulders.

"That was devastating," she says.

But the Lanham native has gotten over that. This month at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center in Northeast Baltimore, she was crowned Miss Wheelchair Maryland -- a one-year title honoring ,, her accomplishments. She also will compete in the national pageant next August. Yesterday, the 32-year-old was one of several former Maryland Shock Trauma Center patients with spinal cord injuries to attend an open house at the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems. The gathering was part of Physical Therapy Month and an effort to publicize advances.

As Miss Wheelchair Maryland, Ms. Jackson, a service representative with the Internal Revenue Service, hopes to inspire others in wheelchairs to live life as fully as possible.

"I want to be a positive role model and show people that they should get out, be active. Don't just sit around," she says.

It's been eight years since she was hit and sent flying 45 feet through the air. She landed on her neck. The last thing she remembers before losing consciousness in the hospital was the sound of a helicopter. She was in bed No. 3 -- the same bed her brother had been in after his accident.

"I couldn't talk . . . but I remember mouthing to my mother for her to call the people at work. I asked her to tell them I would be out for about a week," she says.

Her parents' pain at seeing a second child paralyzed was one of the hardest things for her, she says. "My family had already been through so much with my brother."

Her strong faith and solid family support -- including her brother's example -- pulled her through the tough times, she says.

"I've always been a fighter and a leader. And I knew there was life after a wheelchair. My brother had already shown me that," she says.

It took nearly three years of rehabilitation, but she regained the use of her left side and now lives on her own. She chose not to return to her home in Prince George's County after the accident, instead remaining in Baltimore.

And she's busy; shopping and traveling are two of her favorite activities. Teaching wheelchair aerobics is another.

She also writes poetry and works on her autobiography.

And she wants to use her role as Ms. Wheelchair Maryland as a platform to "advocate and help people break down attitudinal and architectural barriers that are placed" against people with disabilities.

"There were people who just didn't know how to deal with me after the accident," she says. "They think that because you are physically disabled that there is something wrong with your mind. So they try to treat you like a child. There is nothing wrong with my mind!"

And, she declares, "this wheelchair has not changed my goals. I just may have to do things differently."

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