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Go Ask Mom

Ten years later: 'Paralyzed bride' shares update on motherhood, advocacy, and life today

Posted September 20, 2020 9:00 p.m. EDT
Updated September 21, 2020 9:23 a.m. EDT

Courtesy: Rachelle Chapman

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Rachelle Chapman’s accident, which left her paralyzed when a friend playfully pushed her into a pool at her own bachelorette party. Today, Rachelle is a busy mom, speaker, blogger, and advocate for people with disabilities — living right here in the Triangle.

The early years after the accident brought a tidal wave of media exposure — she appeared on “The Today Show,” “The Katie Couric Show,” and turned down an appearance with Oprah because the bookers insisted she appear alongside the friend who pushed her into the pool (to this day, Rachelle has refused to name the friend publicly in order to protect her identity).

Before the pandemic, Rachelle could often be seen out and about in the Triangle, browsing local shops and working out at gyms. We checked in with her for Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month, which is in September, to see what’s next for her and what she wants people to know about her situation.

Go Ask Mom: It’s been 10 years since an accident left you paralyzed at your bachelorette party, and your life changed in an instant. Catch us up on what life has been like, and how you’re doing today.

Rachelle Chapman: I’m doing really, really great! Chris and I got married a year after we originally planned, and then back in 2014 I wrote a blog post about our desire to find a surrogate so we could start our family. Someone I knew from my freshman year in college responded. She had been following my story and she offered to give us the incredible gift of surrogacy at no cost. I’ll be forever grateful to her. I’m also grateful to my alma mater — East Carolina University gave me my education, my husband, and my surrogate, which led to my daughter.

I’m loving life as a mom, and like so many parents I’m busy these days trying to help my kindergartner navigate virtual school. My husband is a middle school science teacher, and he’s currently teaching his class from our garage.

I stay active with blogging, speaking, and sharing my story on social media because I think it’s important to normalize people with disabilities, especially people with disabilities who are parents. There was so much backlash when I first made my parenting desire public. The reality is, we have a strong family and we are very happy. So, even just posting a picture of my daughter and I together at the beach is advocacy.

Rachelle Chapman with her daughter

GAM: How do you handle the backlash?

RC: To be honest, it’s never personally hurt me, but I do care that those individuals have an unfavorable opinion of people with disabilities in general. I know plenty of amazing moms in chairs, I know quadriplegics who are 100 percent independent.

Any backlash is due to misinformation and stereotypes, and that’s what makes me sad. It’s one of the reasons I continue to share my personal life and family, to help break down those stereotypes.

GAM: On that note, you’ve become quite an advocate for people with disabilities. Through your blog and social channels, you often write about misconceptions, stereotypes, and pet peeves that you’ve experienced. Can you give us an example or two, and also share some things you’d like people to know?

RC: I have the perspective of being both able bodied and disabled at a young-ish age in my lifetime, so I can compare the “before and after.”

The biggest thing I notice is how people treat me now — it’s not negative or mean-spirited, but good intentioned people can often be overly helpful. Once at a college football game, my husband went to the men’s room and I waited just outside the door, casually scrolling through my phone. A stranger walked up to me and asked me if he could stand and wait with me. It was a kind gesture, but it came from a misconception that I can’t be left alone, which isn’t true.

Another example — sometimes when I'm rolling around in public, people will jump out of my way even if I'm still 10 feet away. Now, I'm not talking about nicely stepping aside — I mean they literally JUMP out of my way. They wouldn’t do that for someone walking toward them, so I wish they wouldn't do it for me. It's super awkward and in those moments I'm reminded of how people view me in my chair.

And of course there have been many times when the host at a restaurant will address my husband and avoid me — that’s an experience that is relatable to 99% of people with disabilities.

The bottom line is to just remember the golden rule, treat people with disabilities the exact same way you’d treat an able-bodied person.

Rachelle Chapman with her daughter

GAM: Your daughter is now five years old. How do you talk to her about your disability, and what advice do you have for non-disabled parents when it comes to talking to our own kids about people with disabilities?

RC: Kaylee knows what happened, and she knows what I can and can’t do. I don’t have any finger function, so the way I hold things is very different — Kaylee has adapted and more than anyone else in my family, she knows how to hand things to me. She’s also very attached to me, which was a fear of mine in the beginning. I worried that she may not be as attached to me since I couldn’t do certain things, like change her diaper. Thankfully that’s not the case, and now that she’s older I am able to help with things like getting dressed or getting her food out of the fridge.

My advice to others is simple — if parents treat me differently, your kids will too. I’ve seen well-meaning parents pull their kids out of the way when they see me coming. I know they are trying to be courteous, but the reality is your child knows you're treating me differently. I see the faces on these children and a lot of times they go from smiling and being carefree to being timid and scared. It definitely sends the wrong message. You don't do that for someone walking around so why would you for someone on wheels?

If your child has questions about someone in a wheelchair, use it as a teachable moment. Simply tell them “their legs don’t work as well as they could, so they use wheels to get around.” Make it clear that someone with a disability is nothing to be afraid of. You are either born with a disability or you acquire a disability through an accident. Disabilities are not contagious.

GAM: What’s next for you and your family?

RC: For the short-term, it’s surviving remote schooling, with both my kindergartner student and my teacher husband! I’ll continue speaking, blogging, and doing my advocacy work. And in the future, I’d like to write a children’s book to educate kids about people with disabilities. My daughter is very artistic, so I’d love for her to be my illustrator. And of course, I plan to continue enjoying mom life. As I often say, my daughter is the exclamation point in the best sentence I could ever write!

Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.