Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania organization advocates now to create a better future

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JOHNSTOWN, CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — Earlier this month, the new Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania was crowned in Johnstown. The organization is a network of strong women who are empowering one another to advocate for people with disabilities.

For women like Barb Zablotney, this group has become her community and has changed her life in so many ways.

Some of the ladies who make the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania organization possible. Photo: Elizabeth Rajchart Photography

“We don’t want your pity,” Zablotney, the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania state coordinator and president, said. “That does nothing for us. You know what does do something for us? You actually listening and advocating and helping us make change to get the equity we deserve.”

Zablotney won’t hesitate to tell her story. In fact, she wants you to ask so we learn and understand how to make an inclusive environment.

“People need to understand that we are still being oppressed in society today,” Zablotney explained. “There are all these barriers in every realm and aspect of our life every day.”

Zablotney can remember the ignorance she even had.

Caitlin Chaser won Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania 2022. Photo: Elizabeth Rajchart Photography

“I think that was part of the issue of accepting this life was because now I am viewed as less than by society strictly because I have to use a wheelchair to move around,” Zablotney said. “I truly believe that ignorance came from the lack of education in our education department.”

For 21 years, she could walk. Then, one winter night, she hit a patch of ice, lost control of her car, and was paralyzed on impact.

“Then the doctor came in and just told me I have a spinal cord injury and that means that you are never going to walk again,” Zablotney said. “I was like, ‘never again?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m sorry honey you are never going to walk again,’ and I remember crying.”

Life doesn’t always go as planned and while Zablotney can’t control what happened, she can control how she deals with it. 

She found a new purpose when she won Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania 2018 and went on to compete in Ms. Wheelchair America.

It’s not a pageant, but an advocacy platform that gives women in wheelchairs an opportunity for their voices to be heard.

Barb Zablotney after she won Ms. Wheelchair PA 2018

“You are stronger together as a unit than you are by yourself and that is what we stress at Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania,” Zablotney said. “We need to work together.”

Zablotney is now the president of the organization, has brought the competition to Johnstown and has become a role model and mentor, empowering others like Jessica Gardner, the 2021 winner, to find their voice.

“Having a disability would be much easier if people would just have empathy and understanding and want to make the changes,” Jessica Gardner, the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania 2021 winner, said.

Gardner was born with cerebral palsy. Her service dog, Ford, helps her through the day.

“Ford is my angel with fur instead of wings,” Gardner explained.

Gardner said it’s not necessarily her disability that is hard to deal with, but rather the way people treat it.

“If we didn’t have the obstacles, being in a wheelchair wouldn’t be that big of a deal,” Gardner said. “But because we face that every day and because of society’s ignorance and because they don’t understand and because they don’t have that extra dose of empathy of what we go through and what we need, that’s the difficult part.”

Gardner thinks change begins with people seeing what they go through. Multiple times officials have been invited to get into wheelchairs to see a small glimpse of their daily life.

Jessica Gardner and her service dog, Ford, with current and former Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania winners. Photo: Elizabeth Rajchart Photography

Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania provides a community and together they use their voices to teach the difference between equality and equity.

“Someone could technically say you’re allowed in that building just as much as the next person, but the equity aspect is the building is not made for us to get in there properly and access the same things as everyone else,” Zablotney said.

So what can you do to help create change?

Zablotney said the first thing is to listen to them. Second, she explained if you see something that’s not right, speak out against it. It just takes a little bit of effort from everyone to make a big difference.

There are several ways you can help support the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania organization.

You can choose the organization as your charity on Amazon Smile. 0.5% of your purchases will be donated by Amazon.

Officials get into wheelchairs to see the hurdles faced each day. Photo: Elizabeth Rajchart Photography

You can also contribute to the endowment, which is being managed by the professionals at the Lancaster County Community Foundation.

General donation checks can also be made out to:

Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania Organization, c/o Barb Zablotney, PO BOX 114, Windber, PA 15963

If you’d like to help in other ways, the organization is always looking for volunteers. Email MsWheelchairPennsylvania@gmail.com to learn more.

Reach out to Maggie Smolka by emailing msmolka@wtajtv.com or by sending her a message on Facebook if you know someone or an organization that’s making it matter in the community.

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