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In The Spotlight Hoping to raise awareness, Windber woman enters wheelchair pageant

Tribune-Democrat - 1/6/2018

Jan. 06--On more than one occasion, someone's misguided attempt to help Barb Zablotney into her wheelchair has caused her to fall to the ground -- and that's one of the more minor challenges the paraplegic Windber resident faces, she says.

"There's just so many things," she said this week. "I deal with ignorance on such a large scale every day."

Some of the problems Zablotney deals with are caused by people who have good intentions, but are uneducated. For example, she said, some people will, unasked, try to help her get into her wheelchair when it appears that she's struggling, but their attempts are often counterproductive -- dangerous, even.

"I'll be getting in and out of my car, and someone will come up and grab the wheelchair away from me, and I'll lose my balance and fall on the ground," she said.

Others are less well-meaning, Zablotney said, adding that her requests for help with minor tasks are often met with "sighs and complaints and nasty glances." During a recent shopping trip, she was rudely rebuffed when she asked another customer for help reaching an item on a high shelf, she said.

"This lady said to me, 'If you weren't in that thing, maybe this wouldn't be an issue,' " she recalled.

"I was like, 'Wait a minute, I have no control over being in this thing. Why would you bring that up?' ... This other lady looked at me and said, 'Why would you bring a wheelchair out on Black Friday?'

"Am I not allowed to shop when it's busy?"

"Something needs to be done. I don't know what that is. All I can do is get the word out there."

In order to educate people about what it's really like to live with a disability, Zablotney decided to enter the 2018 Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania Program pageant, which bills itself as a way to give "women with physical disabilities throughout the state a platform to promote the achievements, as well as the needs, of mobility-impaired persons."

"Although the contestants are showcased in a pageant format, Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania is by no means a beauty contest," organizers say.

Their goal, they say, is "to find the most accomplished and articulate spokeswomen for people with disabilities throughout the state."

"I thought, 'OK, this is something that might give me a platform,' " Zablotney said.

The pageant will be held in Bradford on Jan. 13, and the winner will compete in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this summer.

Zablotney is a native of Windber. Her father owns Shafer Drug Store on Graham Avenue, she said, and her brother, chiropractor Jason Zablotney, owns Windber Chiropractic Clinic on 15th Street.

After she graduated from Windber High School in 2004, Zablotney moved to Scranton, where she enrolled at Johnson College and began pursuing a degree in veterinary technology.

"I was very happy living up there," she said.

She was five weeks away from graduation when, on December 30, 2007, was in a car crash that left her paralyzed.

It happened while she was driving north on Interstate 81. She wasn't watching out for treacherous road conditions, she recalls -- it was 50 degrees outside when she left her home, and because her car didn't have a outside thermometer, she didn't realize that the temperature was dropping steadily as she traveled farther north.

Near the village of Hegins in Schuylkill County, she hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control.

"It happened right at mile marker 113.2," she said. "I still remember that."

Zablotney, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, broke her spine in the crash and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

Becoming wheelchair-bound destroyed her career aspirations and rendered useless all the college classes she'd taken.

"Unfortunately, the job I had chosen required the use of my legs," she said.

The accident was only the first in a series of misfortunes that befell Zablotney in 2007 and 2008. Soon after she learned that her paralysis was permanent, her mother died. Soon after that, her fiance, a military veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, had a mental breakdown, she said.

As a result, she sank into what she described as "a very deep depression," gaining more than 100 pounds in the process, she said. It wasn't until around two years ago that her mental health began to recover -- but today, she said, she's lost all the excess weight and conquered her depression.

To this day, however, she faces challenges -- both from structural issues, such as public buildings that don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and a dearth of handicapped parking spaces, and from people who aren't educated about what paralysis really is.

"People don't realize I can't stand," she said. "They think I'm just not trying hard enough to stand. I could try to stand all day and I won't manage it. Everything from the waist down is dead."

As a result, she's set out to educate people -- a mission that, she said, was an integral piece of her recovery from her depression.

She's spoken about safe driving and disability awareness to Students Against Destructive Decisions chapters at Windber Area High School and United High School, and she hopes to get more speaking gigs at area schools soon. (The winner of the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania pageant is required to make two public appearances -- including "speeches and presentations on disability awareness" -- per month.)

"Perhaps this is what I was really meant to do -- rather than saving animals, helping people with disabilities," she said.

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.


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