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Ms. Wheelchair Virginia inspires local students
Brittany Yates, the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Virginia, spoke to students recently at Albert Harris Elementary School. At left, Yates shows fifth-grade students photos and milestones from her life. She encouraged the students to not judge people by what they look like, and to never let obstacles stop them from achieving their dreams. (Contributed photo)
Never say “can’t” or underestimate someone because he or she looks a little different, Ms. Wheelchair Virginia told fifth-graders during a talk at Albert Harris Elementary School.
“The word ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary,” Brittany Yates told students — and she is living proof. Despite being born with spina bifida, a birth defect that has kept her wheelchair-bound and unable to walk on her own, Yates became a school cheerleader, earned her Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, went to prom, has worked two jobs, got married and had a son.
Now, at 23, she is the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Virginia for 2013-14. She visited fifth-grade classes at Albert Harris this week to share her message, “Taking the DIS out of disability.”
The school’s guidance counselors arranged for Yates to speak in the hopes that “our students would gain a better understanding of individuals who may be different than us,” said counselor Brooke Clements. “Chances are that at some point, every child will have a friend or classmate with a disability. Not knowing how to act or respond to someone with a disability can be scary, especially for a young child. We teach our children every day that it’s okay to be different and that our focus should be on respecting others, despite differences. Brittany’s story drove that message home.”
Counselor Lauren Appel noted, “At this age, kids begin to value looks and focus on what is on the outside. We hoped that by meeting such an incredible individual they would realize that there is much more to a person than just appearance.”
Yates, who is from Bassett, described the many “can’t”s she has overcome in her life. For example, her mother tried to enter her in beauty pageants as a child, but the pageant organizers told her she could not participate because she couldn’t walk.
“Do you think that’s right?” Yates asked the students. “No!” many of them called out. Fortunately, with the Ms. Wheelchair competition, she said, “I finally found a pageant that was willing to look past these wheels.”
She explained to students that she was born with a hole in her spine, which means that she has feeling in her legs but cannot stand on her own. This required many surgeries as a child.
Growing up, Yates had a supportive group of friends and said she did not experience a lot of bullying. She encouraged students to “watch your words” and not bully students who are different.
However, one problem that stood out to her as an elementary student was the school playground, which was not accessible to people in wheelchairs. During recess, while the other children ran around and played, “there was nothing for me to play with outside, which made me really sad,” she said.
Her mother wrote many letters to officials trying to secure accessible playground equipment for the school. Finally, the campaign worked. Yates was in middle school by that time, so “I didn’t really get the benefit of it, but it made me feel good that it would help other kids.”
Increasing accessibility for people with disabilities is part of Yates’ platform. It is a challenge she knows well. In middle school, for example, she had to use an elevator to get to her classroom, but it was old and often broken down. When it was out of service, she had to sit in the main office away from her classmates to do her schoolwork. One time, she even got stuck in the elevator for half an hour, which “felt like hours.”
“Every time I got back in that elevator, I was pretty terrified, but I didn’t let it stop me from doing what I wanted — which was be in the classroom with my friends,” Yates said.
Also in middle school, Yates wanted to try out for cheerleading but heard “can’t” from a lot of people because she couldn’t kick or do splits. While she cannot use her legs to cheer, she said, “I have a really big mouth, and I can cheer and do the hand motions.” In the end, she tried out and made the team. This helped her come out of her shell and overcome her shyness.
“If I hadn’t done cheerleading, I wouldn’t be here today as Ms. Wheelchair Virginia,” she said.
Yates went on to join JROTC in high school, despite people telling her not to because she couldn’t march. But even though she could not move her legs, she could still line up and ride alongside them. She also went to prom, but encountered prejudice when she went to buy a dress and found there was no ramp or accessible way to enter the dress shop.
“They said they didn’t think people in wheelchairs went to prom,” Yates said. “But I’m not going to let these wheels stop me from dancing!”
Students were surprised and impressed when Yates told them she does dance moves in her wheelchair, drives a van by herself, rides horses and even goes on rollercoasters. She encouraged them to ask her questions, and they responded with a wide variety, such as “What are your challenges?” “What inspired you to do all this?” and even, “How do you get dressed in the morning?”
One students asked Yates what she considers her biggest accomplishment in life so far.
“That’s a great question. Probably my son,” who is about to turn 4 years old, she said. “There were so many people who said I couldn’t have a child. I am really blessed to have him in my life.”
While she is currently a full-time mom, Yates said that once her reign as Ms. Wheelchair Virginia ends, she hopes to go to Patrick Henry Community College and eventually become a teacher.
“Everybody has the ability to do whatever you want to do,” she said. “If there’s something you want to do badly enough, you’re not going to le anything stop you.”