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Young Wheelchair User Promotes Safe Driving Among Florida Teens

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Katie Mathews, Jr. Miss Wheelchair Florida 2010, is on a mission to raise awareness among Florida’s teen drivers about the dangers of being distracted by cell phones while driving.

In 2006, at the age of 16, Katie was paralyzed from the chest down when the driver of the vehicle she was riding in was listening to directions on a cell phone and lost control. The vehicle flipped four times, but fortunately Katie survived.

Like many individuals who have lost their mobility due to unfortunate accidents, Katie was determined to pick up the pieces and regain her independence. She went on to complete high school and was honored as homecoming queen. She now lives independently in an accessible apartment and is working toward her next goal–– to complete college in the Orlando area and earn a degree in Psychology. She was also recently honored as Jr. Miss Wheelchair Florida, after learning of the opportunity to compete while in rehab.

Katie is currently trying to raise awareness in Florida on the dangers of using cell phones and other multimedia devices while operating motor vehicles. “Presently there are no laws in Florida that prohibit texting while driving and my main goal is to change that,” she says.

Katie has visited numerous high schools in the state to educate teen drivers. Her message is clear: A text message isn’t worth your life. “Many of these teens always hear about the statistics and risks of being distracted while driving, but they never come face to face with the affects. When they see a young person like me using a wheelchair and hear my story, it’s a real wake up call for many of them,” she adds.

What’s scary is that there are so many stories just like Katies’. Multimedia-enabled smart phones are becoming the preferred way for millions of people around the world to communicate with each other and stay in tune with society. Technology that once filled a room now fits in our pocket.

Using these types of devices is already second nature for many of us––similar to driving a car. Unfortunately, the two don’t mix. It’s no surprise that texting and multimedia device usage has continued to skyrocket among drivers of motor vehicles and is responsible for an alarming number of accidents, disabilities (vehicular accidents account for approximately 37% of spinal cord injuries), and death.

When it comes to her own independence, Katie’s motto is that “no matter how impossible people tell you your goals are, you have the power to prove them wrong.”

“I can’t tell you how many times during rehab doctors and physical therapists told me I would never be able to live independently and that I would always need someone around to care for me. But I refused to listen.”

Katie credits Jim Strawser, director of Access Your Abilities, Inc. and the staff at NeuroRestorative, a Florida-based provider of post-acute rehabilitation services for people with disabilities for getting her life back on track after her injury. If there is one word of advice she’d like to offer other people with disabilities, it’s that you should take advantage of every opportunity available to empower yourself.

“I believe there are valuable programs and services available for anyone who is proactive in reaching greater independence and achieving their goals. You just have to tap into the resources that are out there.”

Katie is looking forward to meeting other inspirational wheelchair users and using a portion of her workshop to offer attendees advice on achieving independence just like she has.


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