Survivor Stories of Getting Dressed in a Wheelchair (Part 2)
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
The way that I have learned I’m starting to build a great friendship with someone
is if one day they look up at me and say, “I can’t believe that person is taking the
handicapped spot. They are walking fine! Quick, let’s get you out of the car so
that they can see you and feel bad.” This little gem of a statement shows that
they care, and that they finally are starting to get what it’s like to live my life.
With this 2-part article series of “Survivor Stories of Getting Dressed in a
Wheelchair,” I want to give YOU a new perspective on what it is like to use a
wheelchair, and the unique challenges that we wheelchair-users can face when
getting our style on for the day. (Not to mention the many handicapped parking
space squatters that we face once we stylishly get where we’re going.)
As you read in the last article, my journey toward fashion was anything but a
smooth one - more like the consistency of chunky peanut butter. When my mom
and I finally returned home after the accident, I had still not mastered the art of
fully dressing myself. My core balance was not quite strong enough to hold me
upright while I tried to put on a shirt, and I could forget the whole twisty bendy
activity to pull up my pants (see Part One to get the full effect). So that left one
option: my mom had to help me get dressed and go to the bathroom every single
Even with her small frame, she stood me up by holding me against her with one
arm (I was ten years old so this was semi-manageable) and pulled my pants up
with another. I give you this vivid bathroom imagery so that you can understand
why it was so important for me to wear loose, easy-to-get-on-and-off clothing all
the time; and well, to also give you the delightful insight into spinal cord injury of
Another reason that I began to require extremely loose pants is that I started to
wear leg braces each day. To give you a visual, leg braces are like full-leg casts
with metal bars on the side of them that can help people to stand up when they
don’t have strength in their legs. I wore these underneath my pants so that I
could stand up and hobble along with a walker periodically throughout the day.
(This journey will be a whole other article, don’t worry.)
For seven years, these bulky casts remained on my legs and every morning after
putting them on, I would inevitably have to pull up a pair of pants that was two
sizes too big over top of them. The implications of my middle school and high
school popularity set aside, this ritual was helpful for my physical therapy at the
time, but detrimental to my fashion sense. It wasn’t until I got made fun of by my
high school boyfriend for never wearing a dress (oh yes, a total jerk) that I
wanted to ditch the braces and try on some new styles.
My first attempts of trying on new dresses were...interesting to say the least.
Story One - Flashing Strangers
Several years down the road after high school, I found myself dipping my toes in
the fashion pond to find the new look that I wanted to dive into. I still hadn’t really
bought many dresses by myself before and was very much learning what worked
with the wheelchair and what didn’t. When I emerged out of the dressing room in
my local mall in a new purple dress, I knew that it was the winner for my next big
The event was in Atlanta, several hours away from where I live, and was quite a
large conference with many high-powered people. One of the opening social
nights had cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a large dance floor that was just asking
to be spun around on. After taking part in the cocktail offerings, I gathered up the
courage to ask the Vice President of a major company to dance with me. We had
become friends and while he was quite a bit older than me, I wanted to find a
unique way to foster a positive business connection.
I was finding my confidence and was doing my sure-fire best to use it. Once we
started dancing, up front near the band I should add, we garnered the attention of
most of the participants there (from the lower and upper floors) - so I had to give
them a show, right? I told my new friend to twirl me around in the wheelchair as
fast as he could.
Can you see what’s coming?
Yes, my dear friends. I ended up tipping backwards in the chair with the finale
including me sprawled out face down on the floor, dress riding up high, in front of
hundreds of people.
For years to come I was known as the Flipper.
The problem was not just the fact that I was face-planted on the floor in a room
full of very influential people, it was also that my dress rode up in the back much
higher that I was aware of, and therefore gave me the opportunity to flash
hundreds of people.
As I’m writing this and remembering the first story in Part One, there seems to be
a theme doesn’t there? Apparently, I like diving to the floor and exposing myself.
Dresses that ride up too high aren’t going to cut it when you have any chance of
transferring out of your wheelchair (willingly or otherwise). Dresses that have a
little extra fabric at the end but still look cute will be your best bet so you don’t
surprise unexpecting bystanders with a sneak peek.
Some of my new favorite dresses right now are by Vince Camuto and they are
just the perfect length!
Check them out here:
Story Two - Breaking Toes
Several years after this unforgettable experience (after mastering the art of
achieving ideal dress coverage), I entered the world of pageantry. Up to this
point, the articles of clothing that I had avoided completely were heels and boots.
I thought it would be too difficult to keep my feet balanced on the footplate and
that my ankles would twist about, changing the look from sexy to uncomfortable. I
was right in the sense that if you do it wrong, uncomfortable is exactly how
anyone watching will feel seeing your legs twist about, falling off each way and
flying in the wind. (Maybe a bit of an exaggeration but you get my point.)
The new challenge I faced once entering the Miss North Carolina USA pageant
was that I HAD to wear heels during the competition - there was really no other
choice. In addition to this, for one of my opening number looks, I had to wear
long knee-high boots with a sizable wedge. I went the store and was pleasantly
surprised with a trick to make the heels work with my chair but was worried about
the fact that it was quite difficult to get my toes in consistently straight since they
had a tendency to fold under my foot or get crushed in odd ways if I put my foot
I bought the shoes anyway thinking, they will be fine! I will have plenty of time to
get my feet properly set during the competition.
Oh sweet, innocent Madeline...
The day of the pageant came, and little did I know the fast-paced flurry of activity
that was about to come my way. As soon as you finished with one act, you had
about 60 second to go back and change so that you could race back on stage in
your new style.
Flushed with excitement and nervous energy, I shoved my feet into my glittery
gold knee-high boots for the opening number. I could tell immediately that my
foot didn’t feel right but I had no time to do anything about it, so I shoved the heel
of the boot into the foot plate and raced toward the stage.
To my horror, when I returned to my dressing room to change into my swimsuit
and heels, I saw that my toe was swollen and red and had been bent forwards in
the gold boots. When I touched it, my foot spasmed in what I can only assume
I delicately put my feet in my strappy heels and headed back out for the swimsuit
competition (my least favorite of the judging segments). When I finally glided out
on stage to hit my first pose, my whole leg spasmed with such intensity that it
launched my upper body forward towards my lap. It took every working muscle in
my body to hold myself upright! The spasms continued over and over during my
30 second performance and I could barely move across the stage because my
body was so tense with the goal of not letting myself fling forward.
I would later come to find out that I fractured my toe in that boot, and my body
was spasming out of pain. (Something I have a very hard time feeling in my
I’m sure the judges were confused at my change of demeanor from the confident
girl who was gliding around the stage to the girl who went to her position and
held her pose with a wide-eyed intensity of stress and panic.
I ended up placing in the Top Ten in that competition, and I sometimes can’t help
but wonder if my swimsuit debacle hurt my score. Either way, I’m sure that
everyone can agree that it’s on ME to prevent this situation from happening again
next year when I compete - AKA finding better shoes.
1. HEELS - I like to wedge the heel of my heels into the footplate and angle my
body so that my knees face slightly toward the left it the right. This helps to
save your ankles by having them nicely secured and also prevents your
legs from flying apart from each other and leaving you in an exposed
Here is an example from the Jessica Simpson line at Belk: one of my favorites!
(And yes of course, they’re pink.)
2. BOOTS - Wedged boots are my favorite way to wear “heel-like” shoes because
they have much more stability on the base of the shoe. The trick is making
sure that your toes don’t get crushed like mine did! Try to massage your
toes into the base of the shoe while slowly pushing your foot in and out.
When you’re midway, shove your foot the rest of the way into the boot
while pushing on your toes the whole time to make sure they stay down!
Also from the Jessica Simpson line, these boots can be a bit difficult to wiggle
your foot in if you have low foot mobility, but if you follow the steps above you
should be golden!
3. BOOTIES - Avoid step two altogether and get roomy boots/booties. Here are some
adorable (yes shiny) ones that I found at Belk. They are a great example of
a roomy shoe that is unlikely to hurt your toes!
Here is an example of some that are cute and easy to slide into:
I hope you all enjoyed reading today’s blog and seeing the intricacies of my life
that many people don’t ever think about. Stay tuned for the next fashion blog
where I talk about the journey to designing an adapted gown for Miss North
Much love and have a great day!