Editor's Note: After breaking her neck, Dani Schirmer had to find her new normal. This meant exploring new interests, trying new things, and finding a new career. Dani's persistence led her into a job with Spinergy, where she is now one of their ambassadors who helps others discover a better, more accessible life -- just as she did.
I've been living in Southern California now for four years. It is an ideal part of the country to live in particularly for wheelchair users, the most obvious reasons being that there's no snow, rain, or extreme temperatures. You're motivated to get out and enjoy the outdoor beauty. But I also believe that the laid back attitude contributes to the relative social ease I feel despite living with what is oftentimes a stigmatized disability.
Plus, here there are so many wonderful organizations and communities that serve people with disabilities. Challenged Athletes Foundation and Life Rolls On are the two I think of off the top of my head. WCMX is a budding sport around here (I wouldn't dare drop into a skatepark in my chair, but I admire those that do!) and the International Surfing Association just hosted the first ever Adaptive Surfing World Championship in the vicinity.
I grew up on the east coast, between the DC area and later Boston. They're great cities, but things are more high strung and there is definitely more of a 'live to work' than 'work to live' attitude. That's fine, but having a spinal cord injury is already a full-time job and I prefer the relaxed atmosphere of SoCal. I also lived in Italy for 5 years through college (pre-wheelchair), but I can't imagine trying to navigate the ancient city of Rome on a daily basis on wheels.
I started using a wheelchair in 2009 after sustaining a c5/6 spinal cord injury. I fell down in a public bathroom and broke my neck. People are always shocked to hear the banality of that scenario.
After my injury, I went to National Rehab Hospital in Washington, DC. It was a good, but I was still too weak and traumatized to get much out of it. Then I went to Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland and I finally ended up doing more therapy all the way across the country in Carlsbad, California at Project Walk.
My best friend brought me out here to California and I credit her with jump starting my real journey toward recovery.
Project Walk at the time (2010) was great. I found a support group full of young, international wheelchair users and I learned how to challenge my body in unexpected ways. I still do non-traditional therapy and training today at a new place called Strides SCI in San Juan Capistrano, California. Just this past year, I started being able to remain in a standing position with no physical support for significant periods of time. Kind of crazy, and I have my own theories for why and how that is happening.
While I was at Project Walk, I saw a quadriplegic client that had a fascinating piece of equipment under his manual wheelchair. It was a nifty detachable power add-on that converted his manual into a joystick controlled chair. I thought, how perfect would that be?
You get to have the option of using just your manual or attaching to the little jet pack whenever you want, eliminating the need for a cumbersome, full-on power chair. I asked him where he got it and he said his friend built it.
My heart sunk that this wasn't something I could just buy.
But then I heard that Spinergy (who manufactures bike and wheelchair wheels) bought the rights to the device and was working on submitting it through the FDA and RESNA testing so that it could be put to market.
I called them immediately. I hounded them until it's release. I did some fundraising and made sure I was top on their waitlist.
When I ordered the device, called the ZX-1 Power Add-On, I was so excited that I decided to pick it up directly from the manufacturing headquarters. I talked to the owner and voluntarily gave him my feedback on the prototype I owned over the first months of use.
One day he called and asked me to be in the product's infomercial, which I did. After that, they offered me a consulting job to jumpstart their social media while I juggled wrapping up my Master's degree. When I graduated, they offered me a job and the rest is history.
My enthusiasm for the ZX-1 Power Add-On landed me a job and I still have complete faith in Spinergy products.
As a Spinergy ambassador, I've gotten to see how their high performance wheels are designed and manufactured for maximum durability. Same with the ZX-1, and I feel that this quality control reflects the company's dedication and respect for those of us that rely on these products for our livelihood.
Hands down, it was my communication skills. As an English major, you know how to analyze data and then present data in any medium, not just writing. Advertising comes naturally, as does promotional work, public relations and community outreach. This is the ability to bridge the gap between the company and the individuals or communities who have the potential to also be customers. Most people of my generation and later are also automatically social media savvy.
Beyond sharing and posting, tagging and networking, if you know how to strategize, analyze and understand your audience, then you probably will do great with a career in marketing. My pure enthusiasm for the product was also a plus. Being personally invested in the job you are doing or a life you are building (or re-building) is not a skill per say, but definitely a trait that rewards in the long run.
My job has evolved and is pretty dynamic. I'm lucky to have been able to create my position based on Spinergy's needs and my particular skills. I would say that primarily my job is to promote the ZX-1 and increase sales through marketing opportunities including traditional advertising (print publications, sponsorships, media) and digital marketing (social media, blogs, etc.) Sometimes, it is a tricky job, because this is not a cheap device and not everyone has private insurance coverage for it. The DME (Durable Medical Equipment) industry has its own signature way of operating and it has been a challenge to seek and target creative marketing opportunities.
At Spinergy, we have small, but great team. It feels familial and comfortable. Ryan Baker in wheelchair wheel sales is also an adaptive surfer and a wheelchair lacrosse pioneer. Tod and Ryan Webb know all the ropes of the industry, and the CEO, Marty has incredibly sharp discernment. He often has all this stuff on his desk-- materials, tools, prototypes. It shows how he continues to constantly evolve and better his products. His son is dedicated to Spinergy and spends his college breaks working with us. The bike wheel people are great, too, and they often apply their expertise to mechanical problem solving with wheelchair wheel matters. There are also three service dogs in our office - Watson, Boo, and Zandra.
Wheelchair and equipment maintenance for one. Secondly, I get to test out prototypes and products, which is very exciting. Thirdly, going to the trade shows and meeting a plethora of people (wheelchair users, industry people, disabled athletes, creators and engineers.) You get to have all these resources at your fingertips that make wheelchair life much easier and more fun.
I've met local advocates, athletes and even legislative staff. We have a colorful and active community that is teeming with opportunities. Belonging to a niche like this one has a great value.
Since Spinergy produces practically the only high performance wheelchair wheel on the market, their products appeal to all kinds of wheelchair athletes. They are an official sponsor of the WNBA (Wheelchair basketball). You'll also see professional and Paralympic wheelchair tennis and rugby athletes dominantly using Spinergy wheels.
Before working here, I had little knowledge of what comprised a good sports wheel. Also, I'm noticing how big customization is becoming. We all want options to express our personal style- color and detail options, material options, accessories, etc. gone are the days of the 1950's hospital chair.
If you want to go to school, look for scholarships. There are many specifically for disabled applicants. If you're in college, use the privileges of Disability Resource Center- almost every college has special services and allowances.
Start slow, test the waters and your energy levels. Eventually you will regain the stamina to work or study, and handle your life after injury.
If you are so inclined, consider pursuing a career that caters to your new desires and needs that relate to your situation. Many doors will open. Plenty of engineers are needed to develop assistive technology, lawyers to ensure ADA rights, architects to incorporate universal design, and educators to open the minds of people of all abilities.
If you want a career in digital marketing, you need to have the willingness to obsessively research, constantly check several websites, feeds, discussion forms, and pages daily, and to reach out directly to companies, groups or organizations in order to form creative partnerships.
Check out Mobilewomen.org, Pantou.org (accessible European travel), of course Wheel:Life and in sports, MPower Sports and Recreation, Rio2016. The list is endless. Here in SoCal, there's a new support group I'm a part of called the Southern California Chapter of United Spinal. In terms of individuals, there are tons that have great public Facebook accounts: Rachelle Friedman, Jeremy P. McGee and Aaron Fotheringham, for example.
You may also check with a local mobility/medical supply dealer about the ZX-1. Veterans may inquire about the ZX-1 at their local VA. You can also follow Spinergy under “Spinergy Wheels” on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Durability for action-based lifestyles: We build everyday and high performance wheelchair wheels based off years of manufacturing expertise with bike and motorcross wheels. In 2013, we launched the all new ZX-1 Power Add-On for manual wheelchairs. Spinergy is committed to offering a great product that will change your life day in and day out. We take customer service to a personal level and build rapport based on experience with our products. We take feedback from our loyal customers and employ into action. Visit spinergy.com.