Maria Rabaino

Crochet Queen, Disabled Dancer, Equality Activist

Four years ago, Maria was paralyzed in a car accident. Today, she's a member of the seriously dope dance team, Walk and Roll. When she's not shufflin' in the studio, or practicing make-up tutorials from YouTube, she spends her energy opening the minds of abled people to the discrimination the disabled community faces, and how we can all make this world more accessible for everyone.

06/03/16

interviewed by Kejal Macdonald

Iconversation

Which of your body parts do you have the most affection for?  

As ironic as it is for a paralyzed gal like me to say, I LOVE my legs! When I first became disabled, the doctors took one look at the break in my back and believed there was no way I could get any leg movement back because they thought a break like that would completely sever my Spinal Cord. Well, surprise surprise, a week after the injury I got a little feeling back, and 6 months later I was able to kick my doctor (which he loved to see!).

What’s getting you out of bed in the morning these days?

Quite literally my husband gets me out of bed by calling me every morning because I love to sleep! But one of the most exciting parts of my life is spending time with the girls on my dance team, because everything that can go wrong will go wrong with us. We are all stubborn and determined to figure out new challenges together. The last challenge we had together I ended up walking up a ramp!

What’s causing you pain right now?

The plus side about being a low incomplete Spinal Cord Injury is that I have my balance and leg movement which makes daily tasks a lot easier. The down side? I also get nerve pain. It’s normally described as pins and needles picking at your feet and/or legs, but for me it can be much more violent. Sometimes it feels like my foot is on fire, or my legs are being stabbed, pressure increasing and decreasing constantly, or like I keep stepping on a lego. It hurts, but over time I’ve grown to tolerate it more, and have found ways to tone it down when it gets really bad.

Where do you turn for inspiration and guidance?  

I either turn to my amazing mom who is always looking out for me, my husband when I need to vent, or the girls on the dance team I am on when it’s disabled related.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?  

I would have to say my biggest risk was joining the dance team I am on. I was asked to join the dance team when I was only 4 months injured, and still learning how to adjust to this new life. I joined because I knew I would be surrounded by women who have been through the same thing as me and could give me advice, but at the same time, since I was still new and learning, if something went wrong it could seriously affect my self-confidence or independence.

There have been bad moments, and there still are (but that’s just how life goes), but the good times definitely outweigh the bad! Because of the girls on the team I gained my independence back faster than most people do, and now whenever I meet someone new I try to be there for them as much as the girls were there for me because it is one of the most important things when adjusting to the disabled life.

What little activities or personal rituals do you do just for you?

I am a mix of a girly-girl and a tom boy. So, when I'm not watching makeup tutorials or practicing my terrible makeup skills, I'm gaming on PS4. I'm also in love with dance, so I'm always trying to find dance opportunities. Unfortunately, I live in an area where there isn’t a large dance community, but since I travel so much it almost doesn’t matter.

What makes you feel strong?  

Physically, I feel strong when I make it to the top of a hill because that's always a pain.

Emotionally, I feel strong when I feel like I am making a difference. Whether it’s speaking at schools about the dangers of drinking and driving, inspiring other disabled people to push to success, or opening the minds of abled people to the discrimination disabled people face, and how they can make changes to make this world more accessible for everyone.

What makes you feel sexy?  

I always feel sexy when I dance. After weeks of learning a new routine, it’s such a thrill to finally perform it in front of a live audience. I also feel sexy when I do my makeup and wear a really cute outfit. Even though I like to watch makeup tutorials and then try it on myself, I'm also incredibly lazy, so I only do my makeup when I can take my time doing so. If I am just going to work, I would rather spend that time sleeping!

When do you feel most vulnerable? 

I always feel vulnerable when I have an accident. When your spinal cord is damaged, you lose control of your bowel and bladder. Even though I use the restroom frequently, accidents still happen. Especially when my nerve pain is higher than normal, or I have a UTI (which is common for disabled people who need to catheterize). Every day I am learning how to manage it more and more, but it’s still frustrating when it happens, even more so when I am in public.

Complete this sentence: Womanhood is ____________.

Womanhood is confidence and respect for others. It’s when you love yourself as a person, but respect other people and their choices even if they don’t match your choices.
People tend to think disability and sexuality are mutually exclusive, but that is most definitely NOT the case. When we say we are just like everyone else that includes our love life.

How did you get involved with Walk and Roll? Were you into dance before your accident, or did you discover a passion for it after you were in a wheelchair?

I wasn’t really a dancer before my wheelchair life, but I was a cheerleader for 6 years and am very outgoing so dancing seemed like the perfect fit for me!

I got involved with Walk and Roll just 4 months after I became disabled. Shortly after the accident that paralyzed me, this new TV show called Push Girls started promoting their show. It was about 5 beautiful and strong girls in wheelchairs who have been through the same thing as me. It got me and my family really excited. We started looking up everything we could about the show. One thing lead to another and my mom found one of the co-founders on Facebook and sent him a message, which led to a phone call, and then an in-person meeting where they asked me to join the dance team. Even though I was new at this life I said yes, and the rest is history.

You run the Instagram account, @fighting.ableism. Can you share some of your personal experiences with ableism, and what do you wish more people knew to do in order to be a better disabled ally? (I mean, besides the easy, be-a-decent-human stuff like not using your parking spots.)

I have experienced MANY personal experiences of ableism, from people calling me inspirational just for going grocery shopping, to people forcing me to let them help me (even though it’s easier for me to do somethings on my own), to not being able to access buildings because there isn’t an accessible entrance for me, to a former boss of mine refusing to give me more hours because he thought I needed to “preserve” myself as a disabled woman. 

I started the account @fighting.ableism because I realized ableism was hardly ever talked about and some people don’t even know it’s a thing! The sad thing about that is the disabled community is a very unique minority. Not only is it the largest minority in America (20%) but it is also the ONLY minority in which someone can become a member of at any point in their life, by either being born disabled or becoming disabled through illness, injury, or just getting older.

There are a few things that people can do to become a better disabled ally that are actually pretty simple. First, just becoming more aware of disability is important. When I was not disabled, disability was something that never crossed my mind. I thought there were too many accessible parking spots, didn’t care if a building used the accessible stall as a storage room, and would push the accessible button to doors because I was too lazy to open the door myself (BTW when people overuse them, they break, and then wheelchair users have an even harder time opening that door because it’s heavier than normal).

Second, realize that there are TONS of disabilities: physical disabilities, mental disabilities, learning disabilities, mental illnesses, invisible disabilities, etc. You may see a wheelchair user get out of their chair and walk for a second. That doesn’t mean they are faking it, that could just mean they are just unable to walk long distances. You may see a young person with an accessible placard or plate park in an accessible spot. That doesn’t mean they are borrowing grandma’s placard, they could have an invisible disability that you can’t see. The list goes on about how you can be a better ally, but the best thing you could do is follow my page because there are so many other ways you can help make this world a better place for everyone regardless of ability. (Shameless self promotion, I know!)

Like so many taboo topics, our society is really uncomfortable talking about and acknowledging disabilities. Talk to me about disabled representation and how you’d like to see that shift. As a culture, how can we do a better job recognizing disabilities while also not letting that be the only thing that defines someone?

People tend to think disability and sexuality are mutually exclusive, but that is most definitely NOT the case. When we say we are just like everyone else that includes our love life.

I would love to see more disabled people in the media as more than just inspirational porn. When you call us inspirational for going to prom, or participating in the paralympics, it’s actually kind of sucky that our experience is downgraded to inspire abled people that we are living life. You can be happy for us, but don’t use our experiences as a reminder that your life could be worse.

I want to see disabled people play the roles of disabled characters in movies and TV shows, instead of abled actors who don’t know what it’s really like.

I really love that you refer to yourself as “disabled and proud” in your bio. It feels delightfully rebellious and unapologetic, two of our favorite attributes. In the past 4 years since your accident, how has the term “disabled” entered into your personal identity and what has that journey from paralysis to pride been like for you?

Some people have actually gone up to me saying, “I don’t know how you do it. I would die if that happened to me.” That sends out a horrible message that it is better to be dead than disabled. Sure, being disabled has it’s limitations, but that doesn’t mean we want to die. Being disabled is not a bad thing. Being disabled and living in an inaccessible world is a bad thing. With the proper accommodations we are actually able to do a lot!

I can’t feel my legs, but, thanks to hand controls, I can still drive. Nyle Dimarco is deaf, but, because he has an ASL interpreter and Peta was willing to figure out new ways how to teach him choreography, he was still able to dance and take home the Mirror Ball trophy home from Dancing With the Stars. In the past four years, I've learned that even though I am disabled, I can take my stubborn attitude and do anything I want to. I can speak up for the disabled people who don’t have the ability to speak up or leave the house, so hopefully new accommodations will come around to give them a voice and more independence.

LIGHTNING ROUND!

Inside or outside?

Outside! I live in Monterey, so it would be a disgrace to not love the outdoors!

Book or Movie?

Movie. I was never really a fan of reading when I was younger. But on the off chance I do find a good book, goodbye social life.

Tina Fey or Amy Poehler?

Tina, because brunettes are awesome ;)

Waffles or Pancakes?

Pancakes, because when waffles get soggy it’s extremely disappointing.

High-fives or hugs?  

I’m a hugger. (Wheelchair hugs are the best!)

Dinosaur or Unicorn?

Dinosaur, only because a T-rex would understand the disabled life.