WINDBER, Pa. (WTAJ) — Barb Zablotney is one of a kind. She knows exactly who she is, and what she’s doing.
“I was just like, well if you’re going to stare at me, I might as well make it worth your while,” Zablotney said. “I’m just gonna get this crazy chair, I’m gonna get these crazy tattoos, I’m gonna dress crazy.”
It took her a decade to get here.
“They told me you’re never going to walk, and I was like, yeah, you don’t know me, I’m going to keep trying,” Zablotney said.
In December 2007, Zablotney was paralyzed from the waist down after a car crash. Her mom died a year later, then she separated from her fiance.
“I held on to false hope for way too long, and it caused my depression, I feel like,” Zablotney said. “That’s a lot to take. I was just trying to survive day by day. I had no plans for the future. I was just trying to live.”
Zablotney knew something had to change, even if it was just her mindset.
“I would say that that was the turning point when I accepted that this is permanent and I’m still Barb and I am who I am and can still do just as much, I just have to do it differently,” she said.
She decided to get involved with the community and be more independent.
“That’s when I dealt with so many little micro-aggressions, little things that people say and they do that they think are cute or funny but it’s really degrading,” she said.
She posted her struggles on Facebook, but wanted to educate on a bigger level.
“When the opportunity for Miss Wheelchair came to me and I realize it’s not a beauty pageant but it’s more of an advocacy-based thing, I knew exactly what I wanted to go in and advocate for,” she said.
Zablotney competed in Miss Wheelchair Pennsylvania and won. Her mission? To change ignorance with education and inclusion.
“It was really surreal, I was like, did this just really happen, is this really a thing? What’s happening right now?” she said. “I finally found, I guess, where I belong, and my sense of purpose and direction in my life for the first time since I got injured.”
With her new platform, Zablotney traveled 20,000 miles to seven different states and made 68 appearances. She showed officials in her hometown of Windber what it’s like to use a wheelchair downtown, as well as arranged to have Johnstown host the annual Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania competition.
Zablotney lobbied in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. for legislation that protects and advances the rights of all people with disabilities. She started a YouTube channel called “Rolling Rainbow” to show others what a day in her life looks like, calling out people and places unaware of how their actions or inaction impact those with disabilities.
“I want people to learn how to properly address people with disabilities and they speak about people with disabilities,” she said.
Hoping able-bodied people learn to treat her the way they did before she had to use a wheelchair.
“One day I would love for someone just to come by, see me getting in or out of my car and not go, ‘Can I help you?’,” she said. “I would love for someone to just, you know, walk by me and say ‘Hi, how are you doing today?’ and keep going because that’s when they see me as a person and not as someone that is helpless.”
This is only a fraction of what Zablotney has accomplished in two years. She’s now focusing on a support group for others using wheelchairs in the Johnstown area.
“The sense of community is the number one thing that I noticed in the wheelchair community that is very healing,” she said. “It’s the only minority group in the country you can become part of at any time. You’re not always born with a disability.”
Because of that, Zablotney hopes you are thankful for today, because your entire would could change tomorrow.
“If tomorrow does change for you, the world’s not gonna end,” she said. “It’s gonna not be fun for a little bit but it still continues, and you can have a great life afterwards.”
Zablotney is living proof of just how great life can be.