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Janesville woman honored for advocacy, leading by example

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GINA R. HEINE
April 25, 2011
— Don’t let the wheels hold you back.

That’s the basic message of Kristin Larson, who stresses to wheelchair users the importance of setting the same goals for themselves that they might have set as able-bodied people.


“There’s really not that much that can hold you back if you have that determination,” she said.


And Larson should know. Despite being in a wheelchair herself, it is her positive outlook and willingness to motivate others that helped earn her the title of Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2011.


Larson’s story began as a 17-year-old in Beloit. She was running high school track, a member of a dance team and was working at a restaurant when she started to notice feeling run down. After numerous tests, Larson was diagnosed with lupus and a secondary complication of transverse myelitis, which caused paralysis.


While the results came as a shock, Larson didn’t allow herself to shut down. She graduated by continuing school in the hospital, and then went on to earn a marketing degree from Blackhawk Technical College. After completing an internship, she became foundation coordinator at Mercy Health System in Janesville.


Today, she organizes large fundraisers to benefit community programs that include the House of Mercy homeless center and Mercy Hospice Care. She also is an active community volunteer.


Now 27, Larson said she has received a lot of support from the community—and she wants to give something back. She also wanted to increase awareness about lupus, a disease she said not many people know about.


That was what led to her entry in the pageant.


“I also wanted to advocate for people who have disabilities, because there’s sometimes associated stereotypes that they can’t live the same life as an able-bodied person, and I feel like I’ve reached the same goals as an able-bodied person,” she said. “I’ve fallen in love and gotten married, I graduated from college and gone on to have a career. I’m active in my community, giving something back.”


The pageant, held in Eau Claire, is not about beauty and swimsuits, but education and awareness.


“It’s more for really wanting people to understand that the same accomplishments can be made by people who are in wheelchairs and trying to break stereotypes that might be out there,” she said.


As the new Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, Larson plans to talk to medical students and others entering the health care field to increase awareness of lupus, and also to talk to spinal cord injury groups. She’s also in touch with the Wisconsin chapter in Milwaukee of the Lupus Foundation of American about how she can help.


“And really anybody locally who would want to hear my platform or even an inspirational story, I could connect with them as well,” she said.


Larson will document her journey around the state and can be contacted on her Facebook page, Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2011.


In August, she will compete in Michigan in the national pageant.


Lupus is viewed as an invisible disease, Larson said, because a person can look healthy while suffering from joint paint, tissue inflammation, flu-like symptoms and constant fatigue.


Lupus is an autoimmune disorder, meaning a person’s immune system attacks itself, she said. Her secondary complication is usually an onset with lupus patients and is similar to a stroke. Larson has a lesion on her spine that caused paralysis.


An estimated 50 million Americans are affected by chronic illness and diseases of the spinal cord and brain that cause disability, Larson said. Chronic illness is the number one cause of death, disability and rising health care costs in the United States, she added.


Larson cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt and scientist Stephen Hawking as perfect examples of people who were disabled but “gave something extraordinary back to the world.”


“Just because you’re disabled or in a wheelchair user doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute something great,” she said.


Meet Amy Bleile

Amy Bleile, 30, of Whitewater, doesn’t want people to just accept or tolerate people with disabilities, but celebrate their differences.


“I look for the day that we can just celebrate that,” she said.


Bleile was recently named first runner-up in the Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin pageant.


Born with cerebral palsy, she has had more than 70 orthopedic surgeries and uses a power chair.


Growing up in Iowa, Bleile said she dealt with a number of human rights violations such as having to stay inside the building during a school fire alarm. That kind of treatment made her want to pave the way for others so they wouldn’t have to go through the same struggles.


Bleile earned a master’s degree in school social work from UW-Whitewater and a master’s degree in special education from the University of Illinois. She is a substitute teacher in Whitewater and Palmyra, volunteers with special education students, works with the UW-Whitewater wheelchair basketball team and provides respite care for foster children on the weekends.


Her platform for the pageant was based on education being the doorway to change. While their bodies might limit them in labor-related jobs, she said people with disabilities have limitless possibilities through education.



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