On a summer day in 1984, 19-year-old Canadian model Wendy Crawford was getting a ride to the airport for her first international modeling gig when her car was hit by a drunk driver. She never walked again. As Wendy struggled to come to terms with life as a quadriplegic, she saw the need to develop a way to raise awareness of, and become an advocate for, women facing physical challenges. So, in 2002, she founded mobileWOMEN.org, an online magazine that provides information and a community for women in wheelchairs. Her story is one we all need to hear.
Originally aired Oct. 2014
Sandi: Welcome to another edition of the 51% Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. Wrap your head around this. It’s July 5th 1984. You’re nineteen years old, a runway model, on your way to the airport for a flight to Japan for your first international modeling gig. When out of nowhere, you’re hit by a drunk driver. In the matter of one horrific moment, your life changes forever.
That’s precisely what happened to Canadian, Wendy Crawford, who’s been a quadriplegic ever since. As she struggled to identify and come to terms with her new normal, Wendy saw the need to develop a way to raise awareness of, and become an advocate for, women who faced physical challenges. In 2002, she founded MobileWOMEN.org, an online magazine that provides and information and a community for women in wheelchairs. Allowing them to share and to learn from one another. That’s not all. She co-founded Discovery through Design. An event that raised money for programs for disabled women and for spinal cord injury research. For several years, Wendy also served as chair of Women without Limits, an off-shoot of The United Spinal Association, whose mission is to enhance the lives of women with spinal cord injuries.
In 2006, Wendy participated in Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty. An innovative visual arts project designed to transform stereotypes, create new perceptions and challenge personal obstacles by expanding awareness of women with physical challenges. In 2012, the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis named Wendy one of their women of style and substance.
Wendy. Welcome and I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.
Wendy: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to it too.
Sandi: Wendy, was modeling your dream?
Wendy: To be honest, not really.
Wendy: I did want to see the world, and that was the vehicle in order to do that. But it was not something that I ever thought of doing. It just kind of came about, and I knew that I could start traveling. I was really excited. I always loved fashion, so I enjoyed that as an art.
Sandi: Clearly, you had the props to become a model.
Sandi: Did somebody come up to you say, wow you’re really beautiful, you should become a model?
Wendy: No. Actually, I was a tomboy and I had buck teeth.
Sandi: [Laughing] You’re giving hope to all the other people who have had orthodonture, huh?
Wendy: Yea. I was skinny and lanky. I was such a tomboy. I really didn’t have much confidence at all. It wasn’t until I was asked by my hairdresser one time if I would fill in for somebody at some modeling thing that he was doing. Some hair competition. So, I did that, I took some classes, actually to gain some self-esteem and learn how to put on makeup. I figured I’d better start. I was going into the working world, I better start looking like a girl. Gradually, that’s how it happened. It wasn’t something that I planned. It took me a long time to get my confidence.
Sandi: What’s so interesting is that six months into your profession, you get this overseas assignment. Is that typical, not typical?
Wendy: I don’t know. I only know my story. I think some people can take off and other can really try. I was just fortunate to be around some really good talent and the right people. I really pushed my agent to find work for me out of the country because that was my goal. I wanted to travel. That’s how it all came about. At that time, a lot of people were modeling in Japan. It was kind of the big thing at that time.
Sandi: Oh, is that right?
Wendy: Yea. And then after that, I was supposed to model for Fords in New York, but they wanted me to get some experience. I was a little smaller than some of the models at that time.
Sandi: So, you’re six months into the profession, you’re going to Japan. You’re on your way to the airport. So, talk to me about that fateful trip.
Wendy: Well. I got a ride with a friend. I had moved all my stuff from my apartment and I was, I lived in Cambridge Ontario, which is about an hour from Toronto. At least, that’s where I grew up. We went back to Cambridge. I saw my family and then my friend came to pick me up and take me to the airport. He was late.
We left, it was a really hot summer day. Once we got onto the highway, it was really foggy. We didn’t realize that until we got on the highway. We decided to exit as soon as got on. Just looked for the first exit. We finally saw it, and my friend was driving slow looking for the exit. As we got onto the exit, I instinctively looked behind us. I remember my father saying, when I learned how to drive, don’t go slow in the fog. I looked behind, and right when I looked, I saw these headlights right there. The car hit us. I heard this horrific smash. I just fell forward. The car spun out and we went from the exit lane, we spun across three or four lanes of traffic and was stuck in the fast lane. I came to when the vehicle stopped. I was slumped forward, and I had a seat belt across my chest holding me up. I couldn’t lift up my head. I used to be a swimming instructor and a life guard so I knew a little bit about spinal cord injuries. I looked at my legs and my hands and I knew I couldn’t feel them. I knew I had a spinal cord injury.
Sandi: Just in a matter of seconds, you diagnosed yourself.
Wendy: Right. I could smell gas leaking into the car, my friend was just sitting there stunned. I said, “Are you okay?” He said “Yea.” I said “you need to get out of the vehicle.” He got out of the vehicle and I was just stuck there. That was the worst feeling. I could hear cars trying not to hit us in the fog.
Sandi: Oh, boy.
Wendy: I could hear them hitting the brakes and squealing around the car. That was the most terrifying moment of my life because I was so afraid I was going to hit again. Finally some people stopped and one of the guys was an ambulance driver off duty. He came and he realized I broke my neck. He said he was going to stabilize my neck. I asked him how he was going to do it, because I knew that was what you should do.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: Make sure. He told me and I said okay. He stabilized my neck. Then we waited for the police. We were still stuck. I was still stuck out there because the gas was leaking.
Sandi: Oh, geez.
Wendy: They needed the fire department to come. We were between towns, so we had to wait for this volunteer fire department to come before they would open the door. In case, it went on fire.
Sandi: Huh. How long were you in the car?
Wendy: I don’t even know. It seems like forever, but gradually I started to feel like I was going to fall asleep.
Wendy: I thought, you can’t fall asleep. That could be dying. So, I stayed awake.
Sandi: Here you are talking to you. You had the presence of mind to remain calm and not hysterical.
Wendy: I did. That was the crazy thing. I remember when the ambulance drivers finally came, I recognized the voice and realized it was my supervisor from when I was working at the pool.
Wendy: He taught me a lot of my first aid courses. I said, Craig, it’s me. He said who, and I said Wendy. He didn’t recognize me. I was slumped forward and he couldn’t really see my face. I said to him, that time, I said am I going to be able to walk again? He said, I can’t answer that question.
Sandi: Hmm. Hmm
Wendy: I was really strange. Once they lifted me out of the car, I was in excruciating pain. Then once I got in the ambulance, I started going in and out, just from the pain. I don’t remember a lot after that.
Sandi: The driver, your friend, was not injured?
Wendy: No. I think he pulled his back a little and stuff, but he was fine. They think what happened to me because my vertebrae weren’t broken, they were shattered, that my suitcase from the back seat flew over and hit me in the back of the neck.
Sandi: Oh. God. Really?
Wendy: Yes. So every time now, I get in a car,
Wendy: I drive my husband crazy because I’m like, you can’t put that there. You need to put that there.
Sandi: Who ever would have thought that? Wow. Or else you travel really lite, with the clothes on your back, right.
Wendy: [Laughing] Well, I think, too, because I turned to look, maybe my head wasn’t in line with the headrest the way it should have been.
Sandi: Ah ha. They extricate you from the car. The next thing you know, you wake up in the ICU.
Wendy: Yea. They transferred me to one hospital and I remember my brother came and he asked if he should pray for me. It’s funny because I didn’t really attend church that much as a kid.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: But at that moment, I said yes, yes, please pray for me. They had to transfer me to a different hospital to do the surgery which was an hour away. Then they did a surgery to. They took a piece of bone from my hip and fused it into my neck, and then put a metal halo on. Which is this metal ring that goes around your skull.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: You screw it into four places, into the bone, and it attaches to a vest so your neck is immobilized for three months usually. They also did a tracheotomy because at that point I couldn’t breathe. Because your lungs are paralyzed so you’re breathing with your diaphragm, but initially you can’t do that.
Sandi: So here you are, completely immobilized, what’s going on from the neck up? As in your head?
Wendy: Well, for a while, not much, because I think I was on a lot of medication.
Wendy: My mother said the first question I asked was, can I have children? Which I don’t remember asking.
Wendy: Then, then it was just basically it was just survival for a long time. I was in so much pain and the not being able to breathe properly really, I didn’t do well with that. They would have to calm me down. I would be on medication and I would think that I just wanted to get out of the bed.
Wendy: I thought the nurses were holding me down.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: I wasn’t comprehending I was paralyzed. That went on for a long time. Then it was gradually each step was next. Like, getting rid of this apparatus. Getting rid of the tracheotomy. Gradually getting back to health. I lost quite a bit of weight because I wasn’t allowed to eat at first. It was kind of getting my strength back. I was in the hospital for almost a year.
Sandi: And undergoing rehab at that time too?
Wendy: Yea. At that time it was more common. Now they don’t keep people in as long, but at that time, they really want to educate you on how to take care of yourself. I was in the hospital in rehabilitation with people that had spinal cord injuries. That had had strokes. That had brain injuries. That was quite the reality check for me because I had always been so healthy and athletic. I never had been in the hospital before. I never really had family members that been sick. It was a whole new world to me.
Wendy: I couldn’t imagine having a normal life again.
Sandi: If you’re just joining me my guest today is Wendy Crawford. Who back on July 5th 1984, on her way to the airport to go to Japan for a modeling gig, was struck by a drunk driver and became a quadriplegic. Has founded MobileWomen,org, and online magazine that provides information and a community for women in wheelchairs. So, you’re dealing with this horrific new normal. In a way, it’s the double whammy of earning your living from your looks and now you probably think people are looking at you obviously in a different way. What the hell was that like?
Wendy: [Laughing] They were definitely looking at me, especially when I had the halo. I was pretty scary. [Laughing] I was allowed to go home weekends eventually. So, I felt like everyone was staring at me and not in a good way.
Sandi: Of course.
Wendy: People still do stare, but I try to think of it as they’re just curious and I’m not offended by it. Not usually.
Sandi: You don’t feel patronized by it?
Wendy: It can be annoying when people won’t stop. Its one thing to glance, but they’ll keep it up.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: I’ve done the same thing. You know, you look at someone who maybe is different. I think also people stare when you’re young. That was thirty years ago, I’m not as young,
Wendy: [Laughing] When you’re young and you look healthy, it’s like, why is that person in a wheelchair.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Mm Hmm
Wendy: I think it’s just ignorance more than anything. That’s why I work so hard on these different projects. To transform stereotypes and to educate the public.
Sandi: Did you feel, back then if not only today as well, dismissed?
Wendy: I did. Especially in the fashion industry because at that point, I just wanted to get better and get back to my life. I think I was a little in denial and thought, if I could just get my life back to the way it was, in the same routine, that everything would be okay. I talked to my agent, and she tried to get me work, but it wasn’t happening.
Sandi: You knew that wasn’t going to happen, didn’t you?
Wendy: I don’t think I did. I think in my mind, I thought I look the same. Most of my work actually wasn’t on the runway, it was more
Wendy: Yea. Print ads. I thought, well, my face is the same and I don’t know. At first I was naïve and thought maybe I could do this.
Sandi: Did you think the fashion industry would be that enlightened, Wendy, for heaven’s sake?
Wendy: I was nineteen. I don’t know. I just wanted my life back.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Sure.
Wendy: The thing in, thirty years later, it isn’t that much, I think it has improved, but I think we still have a long way to go.
Sandi: I would assume that you had to wind up questioning the very notion of beauty.
Wendy: I didn’t even think of it in that scope at that time. I just thought. I just lost a lot of self-esteem.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: I lost my boyfriend at the time. I lost. I just felt like I didn’t. I wasn’t that confident to begin with, even though I was modeling.
Wendy; I always felt as though I really didn’t belong. I’d been a tomboy my whole life. I was teased and called a boy when I was little. [Laughing]
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: I had short hair and they would say, oh, you’re in the wrong bathroom honey. I wasn’t that confident and I was always like, why am I even here. I don’t know if I fit in. You could see these beautiful women. I would compare myself.
Wendy: It has been a really long journey to gain confidence and then I started questioning the concept of beauty. The more I grow, the more I understand it better.
Sandi: I read that Canada’s Attorney General hired you to be a spokesperson to warn about the combination of drinking and driving. Did you want that job? Did you want that title?
Wendy: It’s funny you say that. Most people assume I did. I did. I wanted to work and I was honored to be asked, but at nineteen years old, you just want to be with your friends. You just want to have fun. You just want your life back.
Sandi: Of course. Of course.
Wendy: And um, but I did enjoy it once I started it and it really saved my life because I, um it helped me have a purpose, and that is the one thing that I needed to do since my accident is I need a purpose.
Sandi: You need a reason to get up in the morning?
Wendy: I do.
Wendy: I can’t just, because people are helping me all day 24 hours a day, and if I can’t contribute somehow, then to me that is difficult. Then I start thinking about things, and then I feel depressed.
Wendy: Where if I’m doing something that can help other people, then I feel good about myself. And that’s what I need. And so I really enjoyed working with the students, I worked, I spoke in some institutions, some prisons, and I enjoyed that, but after a while I did it for five years, and after a while there were just sick of my story, I wanted to do something different.
Sandi: I also read a quote from you that it was a tragedy that the media ate up the tragedy of your accident and they would do the same today sadly, positioning Wendy, positioning you as the tragic pretty blonde whose life has been utterly ruined. People eat this stuff up. It makes them feel better about their lives even if they won’t admit it. I think that’s got to be so true.
Wendy: Like I said, I wanted to model, and the magazine’s that I had worked for were kind and said we’ll do a story about your tragedy, but they didn’t want to give me work.
Sandi: Exactly. Then don’t call us.
Wendy: Yea. That was basically it. [Laughing]
Sandi: I’m the same beautiful young woman I was on July 4th, that I am after July 5th, and nobody could see that.
Wendy: Right. I don’t think I even saw it.
Sandi: But, you just said you wanted your life back.
Wendy: I did want my life back, but I didn’t think. I didn’t think of myself as beautiful from the beginning.
Sandi: That’s true. You did say that.
Wendy: Yea. It took a long time.
Sandi: You’re trying to find your place in this world and you come up with this concept of MobileWOMEN.org. I’d like to hear all about the genesis of this.
Wendy: I always say that I didn’t want to be one of those people with disabilities. To be honest, I was almost embarrassed. I wanted to be around my friends. People would say, oh you have to meet this person in a wheelchair and you can talk to them. I’m thinking, I don’t want to be one of these people. I don’t want to hang around with these people.
Sandi: You didn’t want to be defined by that.
Wendy: I just, I was in denial. It wasn’t until a friend of mine asked me would I participate in this research study at the Miami Project to cure Paralysis down in Miami. I said, okay. I was living in Toronto and it was winter.
Sandi: [Laughing] Let me get the hell out of here. Right.
Wendy: [Laughing] I’ll do that.
Sandi: Uh Huh.
Wendy: So, I started volunteering as a research subject where I was surrounded by other people with spinal cord injuries. I became friends and gradually started to learn from them. Especially the women. We would share experiences. I would see these women and they were amazing. They had these tremendous challenges yet they were able to overcome them and do all these great things. They were mothers, athletes, professionals and I learned from them. That’s when I started to think. Also, I was having a hard time finding information, at the same time. I thought, these women are so amazing. The world needs to learn about these women but also I was having a hard time finding information.
Sandi: Do you not find that stunning? In 2002 that you had to be the proactive one to provide that information? Doesn’t that, when you look back, blow your mind? Seriously, there’s nothing out there for me?
Wendy: It does.
Sandi: You’re not the first person to wind up in a wheelchair.
Wendy: It does. I’m fairly connected with a lot of the big centers. The thing with spinal cord injuries, is 80% at least that was the percentage. I don’t know what it is lately. 80% are male.
Sandi: Ah Ha.
Wendy: So, 20% are female, so it’s the minority. It’s just not something they spend a lot of time on. My first encounter is when I was twenty-one. I started dating someone, and I asked my doctor about birth control. He said to me, well, why don’t you just get a hysterectomy?
Wendy: I was saying, I’m only twenty-one, I don’t want a hysterectomy. I might want to have children. He looked at me like I was crazy.
Wendy: Things like getting mammograms or gynecological appointments. Any of that stuff. Was really difficult in finding places that were accessible. I started to realize the need for that. For women to be able to get the information a lot easier. It was the whole attitude back then. I had a financial advisor one time, say to me, that I should. I said I wanted to put money aside for when I was in my thirties, so that if I had children I could afford a nanny. He told me to take that money and put it towards a psychologist or a therapist because why would someone like me want to have a child.
Wendy: That’s what infuriated me. There is so much ignorance out there. Just because maybe I can’t bathe my child or something like that doesn’t mean I can’t be there.
Sandi: You become persona non grata. You’re totally invisible.
Wendy: Right. Right. I think that actually provided fuel for me. A foundation.
Sandi: It lights this fire under your behind.
Sandi: You say, I’m going to do something about this. That in and of itself must have been really seismic. You said, I just want to get back to my normal life. You never really started anything, you never founded anything. Here you are becoming this mover and shaker in a very different way than what you’re used to.
Wendy: Yeah. I think sometimes accidents like that bring out the worst or the better in you?
Sandi: The best? Are a great catalyst.
Wendy: Yeah. It just depends on your personality. For me, I just wanted to start this website. A friend of mine, was able to help me secure a grant. We got a grant. I partnered with this spinal cord injury project at Rutgers Foundation and used their 501C3 in order to get the grant. We got it set up and then we just started running it. For a while I had some issues with my arms. They were really getting sore from typing.
Wendy: It lulled for a while and then I got kind of a second wind. Separated to go on my own. Managed to find other women that believed in what the website was about and volunteered to help. Now, we have, I don’t even know how many women volunteering to write articles. Help me manage the website. It’s basically run all by women with disabilities.
Sandi: That’s wonderful. This is your full time job?
Wendy: I don’t make any money. [Laughing]
Sandi: Well, hello. [Laughing]
Wendy: I work full time, does that count?
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: It’s important to me and every time I think, oh I don’t know if I want to do this anymore, then I get an email from someone saying how it changed their life.
Sandi: Talk to me also about this raw beauty project.
Wendy: The raw beauty project originally started down in Miami. A woman by the name of Shelley Baer and Vanessa Silverman had talked about. Shelley has a disability and she wanted to do something like a calendar perhaps of women with disabilities. Originally they thought of a nude calendar and they called me and I said no. I’m not going to
Wendy: I didn’t hear from them again. Finally they called again and said, would you be interested in being in a photography exhibit. I actually came onboard once it had already started. So, I was a model in that. I came on the committee and helped the latter half of the project. The mission is to transform stereotypes of women with disabilities. To change perceptions and also to inspire others to be able to overcome obstacles.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Wendy: The event was a huge success. We got a lot of press down in Miami. Local press. People are blown away by it. They saw women in a different light. I’ll never forget, this friend of mine, came up to me and he said. I never thought of disabled women as being sexual.
Wendy: The photos were based on three words, empowerment, beauty, and sensuality. So, some people did kind of sexy shots. We all did something different. I just looked at him and I thought, really. I knew he wasn’t a jerk,
Wendy: Because he was my friend.
Sandi: I don’t have friends who are jerks, right.
Wendy: I thought, Oh my God. This is how people think. I don’t think this way because I’ve been around it. The general population probably just doesn’t know. That was shocking to me. We wanted to do it again, but everyone was busy doing their own thing. I had the website and everybody else had jobs and things. Finally I said, I really want to do this in New York. I think it could be amazing in New York. I thought of the Christopher Reeve Foundation because I was partnering with them with my website. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. I talked to them and they were interesting in us partnering with them because we’re not really an entity. We could use their 501C3 and raise money for them. They do fund a lot of quality of life projects that involve women. They wanted to do more outreach to women, because once again, they had been doing a lot for males and wanted to do more for women. It worked out really well. We just had it. It was a really huge success I think. It was great. We got twenty women with disabilities. Various disabilities. We had about seventeen photographers. I pulled in some of the photographers I modeled with thirty years ago.
Wendy: They were so supportive. We had journalists. We had a couple students. We thought it was important to have some students because we want to inspire the photographers later on down the road, when they need a model
Sandi: Sure. Sure.
Wendy: To think in terms of women with disabilities. It wasn’t about necessarily picking people that we the most traditionally pretty, we want to pick women that were able to overcome the obstacles that were able to thrive and be able to contribute to others. That was really important to us.
Sandi: Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. I could talk to you forever. You’re a hell of a lady, Wendy.
Wendy: Thank you very much. There’s lots of amazing ladies out there that I hope people will take the time to see the beauty in all of us. It’s not just about women in wheelchairs, it’s about all women. The fact that we all are beautiful. Beauty is in strength and uniqueness and confidence. To me that’s what’s important. That’s the message I’d like to get out. We deserve to be part of being beautiful too. Recognized as that.
Sandi: Also, we’re the 51%. So that’s that. Thanks again Wendy.
Wendy: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Sandi: Join us for another edition of the 51% Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to the 51% Conversations with Creative Women. For show comments and suggestions please follow us on Twitter at #sandikleinshow. You can also find us on Facebook at The 51% Conversations. The show is produced and recorded by Chad Dougatz at the Hangar Studios in New York City. Sandi Klein is our executive producer. an