Chandra Smith uses Ms. Wheelchair Maryland title for advocacy
By Jessie Newburn
Chandra Smith, 35, who lives in Laurel, was doing a seven-day water fast for religious purposes when she fainted on Sept. 8, 2021. She had to be medevaced to a hospital where she was given drugs to force blood to her organs to prevent them from shutting down.
This life-saving step, however, caused extreme damage to her limbs and she had to have a triple amputation. A stroke left her remaining limb stiff and difficult to move, and it required 10 surgeries.
She also needed a liver transplant, was in a coma for three weeks, had sepsis, and her lungs collapsed. A year and a day later, on Sept.. 9, 2022, Smith was released from the hospital.
Now, while many people would be devastated, overwhelmed and barely surviving after all she has been through, Smith, instead, is unstoppable. She went back to work, albeit over a year later, with a message and a mission: Accessibility for the disabled means accessibility for all.
Earlier this year, Smith was crowned Ms. Maryland Wheelchair 2023, She won this year’s title during a state-level contest hosted locally by Ms. Wheelchair Maryland and nationally by Ms. Wheelchair America. Winners are selected based on contestants’ advocacy for disability concerns and universal access, along with a recognition of their free spirit and accomplishments as women who use wheelchairs.
“Being disabled is a club anyone, at any time, for any reason can become a member of,” Smith said. “Accessible and universal design benefits everyone, whether that’s for those currently disabled, for those who may have a short-term disability from, say, an injury or surgery; and especially for the elderly, who often have reduced mobility, dexterity and vision as they age.”
Smith is relentless about advocacy for inclusiveness and wants to create an army of change agents trained to be accessibility advocates. Whether it’s a badge an ally gets when they learn how to remediate online documents for accessibility, or encouraging no-mouse website challenges to see if people with dexterity issues can navigate a website without using a mouse, or having more people actively discussing accessibility issues with business owners and others, Smith sees only opportunity. “I know it sounds cliché, but change in the world happens one step at a time,” she said.
She also would eventually like to have an accessibility lab where community members, along with representatives from companies and government agencies, can come try, experience and learn about accessibility technologies.
Smith is an IT engineer in the federal intelligence field. As fate would have it, prior to her medical trauma, she was selected by her employer as the best candidate to start evaluating technology to make the agency more disability-friendly.
Gabriel Naugher, also an IT engineer and a colleague of Smith’s, said, “A few years ago, she organized a well-attended showcase for national intelligence agency staff to learn about and test new technologies that help people with disabilities be able to do their jobs. I’m not surprised she’s advocating for accessibility now, considering she was doing it even before it personally impacted her. That’s just the kind of person she is.”
Smith’s employer was fairly accommodating when she asked for an alternative work station, speech-to-text software and an option to telework some days. Her coworkers were another story. Some of them simply didn’t know what to say when she came back to work as a triple amputee. Some people just stared, and many people outright avoided her.
Rather than be discouraged by such experiences, Smith took action. She’s written documentation for the employment office describing ways coworkers can be more inclusive and accepting of people with disabilities. and she’s planning on creating short videos and vignettes helping coworkers and others remember to treat people with disabilities as the person they are and not to focus on their disability. Her recovery story has been highlighted on the agency’s employee intranet.
“Many of my friends were used to me being spontaneous and up for an adventure,” she said. “I’m still up for an adventure, but I can’t just walk out the door and go.”
Smith now researches places she plans to visit to learn: Do they have a bathroom on the first floor? Is the place accessible from the front? (She once had to enter a restaurant through the back alley where the trash was put, and that was one such experience too many for her.)
But if she encourages even one restaurant owner to install a ramp, then, in her words, “I’ve done my job.”
Smith also volunteers with kids who are disabled. She recently attended A Night to Shine, a prom night in Bowie for kids ages 14 to 17 who have special needs.
“They thought I was one of the kids attending the prom,” she said. Wearing her Ms. Wheelchair Maryland sash and crown, she took photos with the kids and enjoyed crowning each and every participant that evening.
Smith’s work is gaining attention and traction. In mid-February, she met with U. S. Representative Glenn Ivey of Maryland’s 4th congressional district. Ivey’s wife was impressed with an article she read about Smith and encouraged her husband to meet her. Ivey gave Smith a Congressional Award, citing her advocacy, determination and perseverance.
In August, Smith heads to Michigan to compete against 35 other contestants in the Ms. Wheelchair America contest;. The organization’s local chapter created a GoFundMe to cover the estimated $10,000 she’ll need for travel there and accommodations. Any additional funds raised and not used will be donated to the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland group, which set up the fundraising site for her.
“My medical trauma and disability has helped me see that when you’re living, really living, you’re doing things that make you happy; you’re challenging yourself and pushing past your limits and comfort levels. Now, I understand my strength in ways I’d never even imagined possible before.”
While her doctors can’t explain how or why all her organs started functioning again, Smith doesn’t need an explanation. She can see her path, and while her own happiness is front and center, the importance of advocating for universal accessibility is a fire in her that only burns brighter by the day.
To contribute to the fundraiser for Smith’s trip, go to .gofundme.com/f/jvkae-ms-wheelchair-maryland/donations