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A headshot of Stefan Freeman with a sign reading "Freshly Picked Signs" in the background. To the right, a sign is being held in front of the beach that reads, "Coronado Ave."
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How Stefan Freeman Found His Niche After a Life-Changing Injury


Editor’s Note: Growing up in Vail, Colorado, Stefan Freeman was immersed in ski culture. Opting for a change of scenery, he left home in the pursuit of sunny skies and an education at the University of California Santa Barbara. After graduating with a degree in cultural anthropology, followed by a year as a ski bum back in Vail, he decided to move to Los Angeles and begin his career. But as Freeman would soon discover, things don’t always go as planned, and a freak accident would abruptly throw him off his course.

When I decided to move back to California, I lined up two job interviews at advertising agencies, and in May of 1997, I packed up my worldly belongings and took off for Los Angeles. On the way there, I stopped in Santa Barbara to visit friends. We went to a tropical-themed party one night where they had dug out beach volleyball courts and turned them into man-made lagoons. I convinced some of my friends to go wrestle around in them, and I got this bright idea to do a slip ‘n’ slide dive into the water. I got a running start and jumped in superman style.

As soon as I hit the water, I was paralyzed from the mid-chest down.

It was a total freak thing. I didn’t hit the bottom. I knew how deep it was. It didn’t hurt. I just dove in, and it felt like I pinched a Stefan Freeman sitting in his wheelchair at the beach.nerve. I was able to prop my head up above the water, but I was having a hard time breathing because I had lost at least half of my lung capacity. Everyone around me thought I was joking around and that I was just trying to get them to come into the water with me. They eventually realized something was wrong, so they dragged me onto the shore, and a few minutes later, I got carted away in the ambulance.

The surgeons performed a spinal fusion where they took a piece of bone from my hip and fused my C5 to my C7 vertebra. My C6 had entirely disintegrated. My diagnosis is considered a complete C6-C7.

I’ve tried to recreate the incident in my head hundreds of times, and I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities. Either it was whiplash or a prior injury I was unaware of. I skied so much, and I’d done so many crazy jumps and cliffs that it’s a miracle I didn’t get hurt before. The winter before my paralysis, I took a big spill. My neck hurt, but I didn’t get it checked out. I have a feeling I might have had a hairline fracture, and this just broke the damn, but I’ll never know. One minute, I was in amazing shape and about to start my career, and then boom, this happens and completely changes the course of my life. It’s funny how one little thing will take you down another fork in the road.

A Kid Again

I decided to go to the University of Washington for my rehabilitation because my dad lived nearby. I was at the facility for 100 days relearning how to type, write, eat, brush my teeth, dress, and everything else. Spinal cord injury sends you back to being a kid again.

Even after 100 days, I was not ready to go, but they were kicking me out.

During the time I was there, my dad converted his garage into a studio apartment, so I went to live with him. That was August, and I spent the remainder of the year there. I worked out and did physical therapy three to four days a week. With spinal cord injury, there’s a window of opportunity to get back any mobility or sensation, so I took my workouts very seriously.

Moving On

Come December, I hadn’t regained any mobility or sensation, and I was in Seattle where it was grey, gloomy, and rainy. It was bumming me out, so I decided to go live with my brother in Los Angeles and try to get back to being a normal part of society. I got a job at one of the best advertising agencies on the West Coast. I started as an operator on the switchboard and then moved into the media planning department and worked on the dot-com businesses. It was such a great time to be in advertising because there was so much money being thrown around. Then the dot-com bubble burst, and in 2002, I got laid off.

The daughter, wife, and son of Stefan Freeman sitting around a camp fire on the beach.

Starting a Family

Around the same time, I got reacquainted with a woman I knew back in Santa Barbara. We started dating and ended up getting married and moving down to Orange County. I got a job selling life insurance, and we had a couple of kids. My wife grew up in Coronado, which is an exclusive neighborhood off the coast of San Diego. It’s a small-town feel, yet it’s only two miles away from the city. It’s an ideal place to raise children, so we decided to move down there in 2012.

Once again, I had to figure out what I wanted to do for work.

I was burnt out on selling life insurance, and getting another office job wasn’t appealing.

When you’re in a wheelchair, the office environment is not very pleasant. I wanted to work for myself and make my own schedule so I could go to the kids’ games and recitals.

Two photos: Stefan and his son at a baseball game, and his daughter drinking out of a mug holding a sign that reads, "Stay Classy SD (City of San Diego)."

My wife is an awesome baker and cook, so we decided to open the Coronado Cookie Company. We did that for a couple of years, but it was a tough gig. We eventually threw in the towel because we were just breaking even.

Coronado Street Sign

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, so I was racking my brain to figure something out and finally came up with an idea. When you’re at a ski resort, they have signs indicating the name and difficulty level of the trails. My friend had a gift shop in Vail where they sold trail signs that you could customize with your name on it. It was a souvenir you could take home and put on your wall to remind you of your trip. I had bought a couple of them for my kids, so I thought, “What if I could do something like that in Coronado?” It’s a huge tourist destination, and the street signs here are pretty iconic.

I decided I could sell these signs to tourists and locals, and they could customize them with their name or favorite street.

Instead of stealing the signs from the city and getting arrested, they can just buy it from me.

Blue signs reading, "Your Name Here," "Daisy Ave," Shaka Dog," and Date Ave."

I launched my business, Coronado Street Sign, almost three years ago. It started with just Coronado, but it’s evolved into other cities, billboards, and all sorts of things.

Peer Mentoring with Ralph’s Riders

Mayra Fornos and I go pretty far back. When I was living in LA, she started Ralph’s Riders in honor of her husband, Ralph, who A closeup shot of Mayra and Ralph Fornoshad passed away. She was looking to give back to the SCI community through her nonprofit. I was one of the first few Riders who mentored newly injured individuals through the organization.

When I was in the hospital, it was fine talking to psychologists who could help me work through the feelings associated with my injury and my life completely changing. I was thrown for a loop and didn’t know what to expect or how to cope with it.

But I found that speaking with people who had similar injuries and seeing what they had accomplished with their lives was the best pick-me-up.

It showed me that there’s life after spinal cord injury. It’s not all gloom and doom, and you can achieve and do so much. When Mayra told me she wanted to help newly injured people get back on their feet through Ralph’s Riders, I was totally on board.

Editor’s Note: Mayra Fornos, Esq. is the co-founder of Fornos Law, a firm specializing in catastrophic personal injury in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit FornosLaw.com.

Growing the Business with the Help of Ralph’s Riders

Mayra knew I had started a business, so last Christmas, she asked me to make some signs for the Ralph’s Riders board members as gifts. After I did those, she was telling me about the different shows and events she does, like Abilities Expo and Law and Resource Days, and she wanted me to make some promotional items for her to give away. However, with the equipment I had, I couldn’t inexpensively make something like keychains or pins on a mass level. That sparked an idea that if I could diversify what I was doing, I could add more options to what I offer.

Coronado Sign booth at farmers market with signs and hats for sale.

I did some research and discovered a technology called sublimation which chemically binds an image to metal or other materials.

With the help of a grant from Ralph’s Riders, I bought a sublimation printer and other necessary supplies.

I played around with it for a few months to get the techniques down, and it has allowed me to expand the different items I offer. Now, I can do sublimation patches for hats, license plate frames, and vinyl stickers, for example. This machine enables me to make different items and diversify my offerings, and it was Mayra who planted the idea in my head. It’s become a reality, and it adds another element to my business.

A hate with a patch that reads, "Coronado, King of Islands."

My next step with the website is adding the sublimation option. I would love for people to be able to design their signs or other items using various templates. They’d get a proof of what it would look like, and the information would be sent to me to produce and send out. However, it would be very costly to have that feature built for the website. For now, I just have to grow organically.

It’s fun, and I enjoy working for myself and controlling my destiny.

I wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of Mayra and Ralph’s Riders!

Ralph's Riders logo

Tips for Starting a Business

If you’d like to start a business, my advice would be to look for a mentor because somebody else is already doing it. When my wife and I started the cookie company, I went to various bakeries and talked to them about their business. For the most part, people are open to helping others out, especially if they roll up in a wheelchair. It’s just a matter of asking. Seek out people who are doing something similar and then make it work for your purposes and abilities.

Experiment, and find your niche.

Come up with something unique that nobody else is selling, then go to a farmers market and test it out. Get feedback from people. It’s all about fine-tuning and figuring out what people want and what they’ll buy.

Multiple signs of various colors and text on a table.

Editor’s Note: To order a sign or other items, contact Stefan Freeman at CoronadoSign@gmail.com. Check out @beach_street_sign on Instagram or @CoronadoStreetSign on Facebook for inspiration.

Ralph’s Riders Foundation is looking for Riders (peer mentors), career coaches, and volunteers who want to support its mission. Sign up to get involved at RalphsRiders.org/volunteer.

For more information on the programs and resources offered by Ralph’s Riders, visit RalphsRiders.org, and follow @ralphsridersfoundation on Facebook for announcements on upcoming events. 

To learn more about Ralph Fornos, the inspiration behind the foundation, read Love Really Does Conquer All: How Ralph and Mayra Fornos Turned Tragedy into Triumph.

Meet up with Ralph’s Riders Foundation in Los Angeles at the 4th Annual Disability Pride Parade & Festival on October 6, 2019, and the Wheelchair Wash Festival on October 13, 2019. See the fliers below for details.

Two fliers side by side. The first reads, "4th Annual Disability Pride Parade & Festival. Sunday, October 6, 2019, 9:30am - 3pm, East LA Civic Center, 4801 E. 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90022. The second reads, "Wheelchair Wash Festival, Sunday, October 13, 2019, 11am - 6pm. Free admission. East Los Angeles Civic Center, 4801 East 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90022.

About the Author

betsy-bailey-headshot

Betsy Bailey has a diverse background that includes experience in marketing research, business operations, travel and culinary writing, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.

Betsy has been writing for Wheel:Life since January of 2017 and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. She also practices parkour, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!

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A New Book Teaches Kids About the Life of a Service Dog

Editor’s Note:  As a single mom of a 7-year-old, Amy Sherwood was ...

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Win a Trip to the Boston Abilities Expo

Have you always wanted to attend an Abilities Expo but you don’t ...

A person with a green helmet uses an ice pics to climb an icy cliff.
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Wheel:Life and Comfort Medical Sponsor the Paradox Sports Adaptive Ice Climbing Trip

Editor’s Note:  A little over a decade ago, a group of guys with a ...

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Norah Self-Caths in Kindergarten, Thanks to this Free Resource

It’s a given that kids who cath want to be like their friends at ...

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The Healing Powers of Grounding Therapy for Wheelchair Users

Editor’s Note:  Having grown up on a farm in rural Montana, Clint ...

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Cruising the Planet with Amputee Debra Kerper

Editor’s Note: When a bone infection complicated by lupus took ...

Being prepared for college is one thing, being prepared for college dating is another!
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The Online Dating Experience for the Disabled

Dating is hard. Dating is really hard. If you have a disability, ...

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Inclusion, Adventure, and Therapy with Freedom Concepts

Editor’s Note: In 2014, Michigan residents Caroline Booth and Matt ...

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Where Do You Want to Go?

Have you always dreamt of seeing the Aurora Borealis in Alaska? Or ...

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TerrainHopper USA: Bringing Adventure and Freedom to People with Disabilities

Editor’s Note:  Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, Todd Lemay ...

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Breaking Down Broadcasting Barriers with Paul Amadeus Lane

Editor’s Note: Growing up in Long Beach, California, Paul Amadeus ...

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Zebreda Dunham Powers Through Challenges on the Pitch and in Life

Editor’s Note:  Born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, ...

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Adaptive Aerial Yoga Allows Wheelchair Users to Fly

  Editor’s Note: Texas native Sara Schaffer has been ...

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Sex, Love, and Disability:  Ben Duffy’s New Documentary Exposes It All

Filmmaker Ben Duffy and Ajani “AJ” Murray met while working on a ...

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Amputee Bob Clausen Says If You Want Something Bad Enough, You Will Do It

Editor’s Note:  Widower and Navy veteran Rober “Bob” ...

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The Ms. Wheelchair California Pageant: A Life-Changing Experience

As the Ms. Wheelchair California Leadership Institute, formerly known ...

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Comfort Conversations: Support Systems Are Key After a Life-Altering Tragedy

Having key support systems after a life-altering injury is crucial. ...

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Sheri Melander-Smith on Living Your Best Life

Editor’s Note:  Sheri Melander-Smith was born with a vascular ...

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5 Extreme Activities to Add to Your Bucket List

Have you already tried all of the typical adaptive sports available ...

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Reflections and Lessons Learned in 2017

We hope your 2017 was as enlightening and empowering as ours was here ...

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Living with MS: One Family’s Solution to Enjoying Life Events Again

Dave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999 and for the first ...

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4 Tips to Help Teach Your Child About Self-Catheterization

At a certain age, kids will be the first to tell you that they want ...

waving happy young adult woman on wheelchair in the city in winter at sunset
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Winter Weather Preparedness Tips for Wheelchair Users

Are you dreading this winter season? Dealing with slushy, icy, snowy, ...

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Making Adaptive Climbing More Accessible with Arthur Torrey

Editor’s Note: When a tree-cutting accident in 2010 led to broken ...

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Barbara Cramer – 75 Years of Defying Stereotypes

Editor’s Note:  An earlier version of this post may have left the ...

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Serving the Spina Bifida Community with the SBAGNE

I serve as the executive director of the SBAGNE. One of my primary ...

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Comfort Medical is Helping People to Achieve a Healthier and Happier Lifestyle

If you’re an avid Wheel:Life reader, you may remember that we ...

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Advocating for Disability Rights with Stephanie Woodward and CDR

Editor’s Note: During a summer internship at the Center for ...

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Building Strength and Confidence with Handi Capable Fitness

Editor’s Note: A botched hernia operation during infancy left James ...

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Comfort Medical Sponsors Freedom Concepts to Help You Win An Adaptive Bike

Have you always dreamt of gliding down the street with the wind in ...

women in wheelchairs dancing at Abilities Expo
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Experience It All At the Abilities Expo!

Days are becoming shorter, nights longer, and the holiday season is ...

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ParaSportsLive: Bringing Adaptive Sports Coverage to the World

Editor’s Note:  When wheelchair user Tony Jackson’s original ...

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Introducing the New Cure Ultra Coude Intermittent Catheter for Men

Cure Medical has unveiled the new 16-inch Cure Ultra® Coude ...

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Get Ready for Rolling With Me’s Each By Name Conference

Wheel:Life, Comfort Medical, and Rolling With Me is excited to ...

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Smooth Sailing with David Gaston

Editor’s Note:  A Texas coast native, David Gaston has been in and ...

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Gain Traction This Fall with National Ramp

Summer is officially over and dreary winter weather is on its way. ...

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Wheelchair Dancers Organization Says Everybody Can Dance!

When life-long dancer Beverly Weurding was diagnosed with limb-girdle ...

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Pursuing Health and Happiness with Malaise Wheelchair Fitness

Editor’s Note: Justin Malaise grew up in small-town Wisconsin as a ...

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Former Ms. Wheelchair Illinois Continues to be a Voice for the Community

Editor’s Note: Born with spina bifida, Kim Brown has been a ...

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Dare to Discover the World of Accessible Travel With Handiscover

Editor’s Note: Sebastien Archambeaud has always loved traveling, so ...

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Made for Kids! The Pediatric Hydrophilic Cure Catheter + Free Backpack Program

Parents only want what’s best for their children and keeping them ...

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Wheeling, Driving, Bowling, Preaching, Parenting…Johnny Hudson Does It All Hands-free!

Editor’s Note: Johnny Hudson was born in 1977 with unforeseen ...

Pat Dougherty explains FreeWheel to a new fan at a recent Abilities Expo.
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The Abilities Expo is Coming To Boston!

Boston awaits with open arms. This September 8–10, head over to the ...

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Comfort Conversations: Change Starts with You – Becoming an Advocate

Join us every other month for Comfort Conversations, a discussion ...

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WheelchairTravel.org: Blazing the Trail Towards an Accessible World  

Editor’s Note: After sustaining severe burns during a car accident ...

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The Artfully Gifted Foundation – Serving Entrepreneurs with Disabilities

Editor’s Note: The Artfully Gifted Foundation (a non-profit) was ...

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How the SCRS-IL Can Help You Live Independently

Editor’s Note: When triple degree holder Jose Gonzalez returned ...

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Peter Arballo Never Gave Up on Himself — Neither Should You

Editor’s Note: Peter Arballo was born in Southern California to ...

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Full Speed Ahead with Endurance Racer Michael Johnson

Editor’s Note: Michael Johnson of Lansing, Michigan, started racing ...

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The Extraordinary Life of Triple Amputee Monica Vickers

Editor’s Note: Monica Vickers was born in 1954 missing both legs ...

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Rick Hayden Rolls on Capitol Hill for Your Rights

When Rick Hayden visited the US Capitol last week, he went with your ...

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Gear Up for Abilities Expo Chicago

Calling all Midwesterners — Abilities Expo is coming to Chicago! As ...

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Run, Jump, and Throw Stuff with Angel City Sports

Editor’s Note: Clayton Frech is the CEO and founder of Los ...

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Sled Hockey with Coach Koz

Editor’s Note: Sled hockey (also known as sledge hockey) is almost ...

Summer Solutions with STYLEDWEL
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Summer Solutions with STYLEDWEL

Editor’s Note: Mary Marshall, founder of STYLEDWEL, created ...

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Following Your Inner Guidance with Kristina Rhoades and How National Ramp is Helping Her Do It

Editor’s Note: Kristina Rhoades is a mom, wife, speaker, writer, ...

men who use wheelchairs
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Comfort Conversations: Finding Encouragement Through Peer Support Groups

Join us every other month for Comfort Conversations, a discussion ...

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Allen Beauchamp on Life, Love and Hockey

My name is Allen Beauchamp, and I’m 43 years old. I live in a ...

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Yoocan Get Empowered!

Editor’s Note: Inspired by a family member with disabilities, Moshe ...

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Introducing the Cure Ultra: Ready to Use Catheter for Men

Cure Medical has unveiled the new 16-inch Cure Ultra™ Intermittent ...

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Refuel and Rejuvenate At Abilities Expo New York Metro

East coasters, or anyone within striking distance, gear up for ...

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Criptaedo: Breaking Boards and Barriers

Editor’s note: Paul Brailer, aka Criptaedo, was born with spina ...

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Rolling Forward with Amputee Advocate Stella Sieber

I’m currently 63 years old and live in Durham, North Carolina. ...

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Stroke by Stroke: Moving Forward with Mallory Weggemann

Editor’s Note: At 18 years old, Mallory Weggemann walked into the ...

Margarita Cover Photo
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Comfort Conversations: Finding Your New Normal After a Spinal Cord Injury

Join us every other month for Comfort Conversations, a discussion ...

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Glenn Moscoso: Wheelchair Daddy

Editor’s note:  Glenn Moscoso is a husband and father living with ...

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Avoiding Slippery Slopes with Garth Walker and National Ramp

Editor’s Note: After selling his prior business, Garth Walker went ...

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The National Sports Center for the Disabled: Finding Self-Confidence through Personal Challenge

Editor’s Note: The National Sports Center for the Disabled, founded ...

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Wheeling around the World with Susie Twydell

Editor’s Note: Based in England, Susie Twydell, an avid traveler ...

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Amplitude Media Group: Closing the Information Gap

Wheel:Life is thrilled to announce their newest community partner, ...

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Accessible Hiking, Camping and Fishing? WOW!  

Editor’s Note: Wilderness on Wheels (WOW) is a foundation and a ...

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Comfort Conversations: Events, Free Packs, and More with James “Woody” Beckham

Editor’s Note: The Woody Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit ...

S
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Jenn Sexton Shares Her Secret for Independence: An Extra Long Cure Catheter

Jenn Sexton was five weeks pregnant when she and her husband, Thomas, ...

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Glen Schlotterbeck: Reinvent Yourself!

Editors note: As a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, Glen ...

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Educate, Energize, and Enlighten at Abilities Expo Los Angeles

The Abilities Expo is back in Los Angeles and gearing up to show you ...

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Juan Sebastian Betancourt: Changing the Way Businesses Serve People with Disabilities

Editor’s Note: Juan Betancourt is on a path to change the world for ...

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AccessibleIndonesia: Making Travel Accessible in a Non-Accessible Country

Editor’s note: Kerstin Beise, a German physiotherapist, who also ...

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A Lesson on Living Life to the Fullest with Hydred Makabali

Editor’s note: Hydred Makabali, born and raised in England and now ...

Up/Down Team Champions (Top L to R) Shane Hayden, Harold Collins (Seated L to R) Gary Bowling, Kenneth Hill, and Don Law
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Knocking Down The Pins of Life with Wheelchair Bowling Champion Kenneth Hill

Editor’s Note: Fifty-year-old Kenneth Hill from Plainfield, ...

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Take Your Wings and Fly with Denise Horn

Editor’s Note: Fifty-six-year-old Denise Horn of Janesville, ...

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Ashley Hutson Wilson Beat a Small Chance of Survival to Live a Full Life

Editor’s Note: Thirty-one year old Ashley Hutson Wilson from Kyle, ...

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Jam with Mel Bergman: Creator of Wheely Guitars

Editor’s Note: Mel Bergman of Camarillo, California, is the ...

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Gary “Tiger” Balletto: Champion Prize Fighter Who Rolls with the Punches

Editor’s Note: You can capture a ferocious wild tiger and put him ...

9 Robby Heisner
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Meet Robby Heisner: Creative Entrepreneur on Wheels

Editor’s Note: Robby Heisner of Smyrna, Georgia ...

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The National Rifle Association’s Adaptive Shooting Program with Dr. Joseph Logar

Dr. Joseph Logar Editor’s Note: Dr. Joseph Logar has his doctorate ...

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The Rollettes Take On an E.P.I.C. Project to Empower Others

Editor’s Note: Chances are, you’ve seen these ladies ...

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Speak Up Now to Save Your Wheelchair: Fight Medicare Cuts

Your window is narrowing to preserve access to mobility equipment – ...

engineered for adventure GRIT
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Go Further Together with GRIT: Stories of Community Support

Our friends at GRIT, the makers of the revolutionary Freedom Chair, ...

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Paralyzed Veteran’s Mom Awarded Dream Trip by ElDorado Mobility

Editor’s Note: Serving our country as a military service member is ...

4Kenneth Perry
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Wheelchair Karate: Attack the Attacker with Kenneth Perry

Editor’s Note: Kenneth Perry from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ...

5 Tom Cannalonga
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Ditch Your Chair to Sit-Ski the Slopes with Tom Cannalonga 

Editor’s Note: Fifty-two-year-old Tom Cannalonga lives in Edison, ...

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Welcome to Wheel:Life

We are so glad you’re here! Wheel:Life is a global initiative ...

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