Members of the 412th Test Wing recognized National Disability Employment Awareness Month during a luncheon hosted by the 412th Communications Squadron Oct. 28 at Club Muroc.
NDEA month has been observed every October the last 70 years and this year’s theme is “My Disability is One Part of Who I Am.”
Guest speakers, Angela Rockwood and Andrew Skinner, are both survivors of accidents that left them quadriplegic. In spite of their injuries, both Rockwood and Skinner found strength in their situations.
In 2001, Rockwood’s life was “practically perfect.”
“I had just met my soulmate, we got engaged, we bought a new house, I just signed an acting/modeling contract with two agencies and I was about to start this whole new life,” she recalled.
On Sept. 3 of that year, she was on her way home from a trip to San Francisco with two of her bridesmaids when everything changed. Rockwood had just woken up from a nap in the backseat of the car when the story her friends were sharing started to get “juicy.” She unfastened her seatbelt and pulled herself forward to hear what they were saying when the car started to swerve off the road.
No other cars were involved, just loose gravel on a turn. Rockwood’s head hit the back of the seat in front of her shattering her C4 and C5 vertebrae and severing her spinal cord. She was catapulted out of the small triangular window in the back seat and landed face-first on the side of the road.
She remembers her natural instinct to push herself up, but she was already paralyzed.
In the hospital she woke up looking at the ceiling and thought, “I’m alive” then, “I’m here for a reason.”
“I knew I was at a fork in the road and I could either go down that positive path or that negative path. And I knew that if I went down that negative path, no one would be able to bring me back.”
After leaving the hospital, she went back into acting and then modeling. She became one of the first quadriplegics to go in a national campaign for Target and Nordstrom. Then she became an ambassador for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
Eventually she acted in and became the producer of “Push Girls,” an unscripted television series about four girls “taking on the world and not allowing their disability to get in the way.”
“What I found was when someone deals with a catastrophic event, something inside of them diminishes, it dims. I think it’s very important that we need to go out into the world and remind others no matter what happens to you; you have to continue remember who you are inside,” she said.
In the years that followed her injury, Rockwood found that there are three things that drive her: Gratefulness to be alive, keeping her vision, and most importantly, passion.
Skinner was 24 years old when he was injured. He had just graduated from college, landed a great job and was dating the girl of his dreams.
“I was on top of the world,” he said.
Six months after graduation, he was in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., to celebrate Thanksgiving. Nov. 26, 2004, he fell while snowboarding and broke his fourth, fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in his neck. Initially, he thought he just had the wind knocked out of him, but in fact, he had been paralyzed.
He remembers laying in the hospital bed feeling like his life was over and telling his girlfriend that he didn’t know what kind of a man he could possibly be for her.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t fall in love with you because you could walk,'” said Skinner. “She was a real inspiration to me to be the best man I could be.”
After his accident, Skinner got married, went back to work, learned to drive a car and became a father.
“I’ve got a little daughter, I’ve got a dog, a house with a mortgage — I’m living the dream,” he remarked.
He also founded an organization called Triumph Foundation that helps people with spinal cord injuries and disorders. In addition to assisting them with their recoveries and addressing inadequate health insurance coverage, they host adaptive recreational activities like wheelchair basketball, water skiing, snow skiing and target shooting.
He encouraged everyone in the room to “just be aware” and remember that words are powerful. A kind phrase he said costs you nothing, but it could have a big impact on someone — disability or not.
“I believe my body’s abilities far outweigh the disabilities that I have,” said Skinner. “My body’s strongest muscles, my mind, my heart and my spirit are still very much in tact and stronger than ever.”