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When your path is clear

If ever you think you’re having a bad day, remember this young woman and how her life changed in one instant — and over the course of a year and one day in the hospital afterward. How she went from being rather active and and certainly able to function at high capacity in life to being a triple amputee and then some.

And yet. And yet. To meet her. To hear her speak. She is joy and power and life and love, all wrapped in one. Here’s the story I wrote about Chandra Smith, Ms.Wheelchair Maryland 2023 for The Laurel Independent newspaper. Page 2. (Well, they rather shortened my intro, but here — below — is what I submitted.)

Check her out and consider some funds sent her way for her GFM page and chance to win Ms. Wheelchair America, 2023. And, yes, if you’re local ever need an inspirational speaker, consider giving her a call.

Chandra Smith Uses Ms. Wheelchair Maryland Title for Advocacy

Have you ever had a situation where you were hobbled and your mobility was impacted? Maybe you twisted an ankle and had to be on crutches for a bit. Overnight, so many daily tasks and simple activities–bringing groceries in, driving to the store, or even just going to the mailbox–can become a struggle.

What about your hands? Have you ever had your wrist temporarily immobilized after a sprain, or maybe limited in use for a week or so after an unfortunate accident with a kitchen knife? You probably became quite aware, rather quickly, of how much you use your hands: not just one, but both of them, for picking things up, typing messages, opening the cap on your toothpaste so you can brush your teeth; and hundreds, if not thousands, of other dexterity, strength and coordination activities you took for granted.

Now imagine, if one day, you fainted while doing a seven-day water fast for religious purposes, got medevacked to Georgetown University Hospital, was given drugs to force blood to your organs as your body was shutting down, but that life-saving step caused extreme damage to your limbs (and created sepsis); and a doctor gave you 10 minutes to decide whether you wanted to die or give life a shot. One little caveat if you chose life: you’d need a triple amputation. Stat!

Imagine all your organs, except your heart and brain, shutting down. Imagine having your lungs collapse, you needed an urgent liver transplant, and you were on dialysis.

Imagine being in a coma for three weeks. Imagine having a stroke as well, which left your one remaining intact limb stiff and difficult to move. Imagine having to endure ten surgeries on one leg alone.

Yeah, imagine one day you were living your “normal” life, then you fainted, and then one year and one day later–from September 8, 2021 through September 9, 2022– you were finally released from the hospital. 

For many people, that burden would be a weight too heavy to carry, yet for long-time P.G. county resident and recent Laurel resident, Chandra Smith, who earlier this year was crowned Ms. Maryland Wheelchair 2023, she seems born for the challenge. 

Smith won this year’s title during a state-level contest hosted by Ms. Wheelchair Maryland locally and Ms. Wheelchair America nationally. Winners are selected based on contestants’ advocacy for disability concerns and universal access, along with a recognition of their free spirit and accomplishments as women who use wheelchairs.

With two masters degrees–one in management science and one in information systems–plus an MBA under her belt, accomplishment was already in Ms. Smith’s DNA. 

Smith was an IT engineer in the federal intelligence field before her medical trauma. As Fate would have it, prior to her medical trauma, she was selected by her employer as the best candidate to start evaluating technology to make the agency more disability-friendly. 

For example, they needed a top-secret engineer who could look at various accessibility technologies–such as a bluetooth hearing aid required by someone who sometimes needed to work in a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility). Smith did that, as well as assessing agency websites and online content for 508-compliance. 

Gabriel Naugher, an IT engineer colleague of Smith’s, said, “A few years ago, she organized a well-attended showcase for national intelligence agency staff to learn about and test new technologies that help people with disabilities be able to do their jobs. I’m not surprised she’s advocating for accessibility now, considering she was doing it even before it personally impacted her. That’s just the kind of person she is.”

Now, while many people would be devastated, overwhelmed and barely surviving after all she has been through, Smith, instead, is unstoppable. Smith came back to work, albeit over a year later, with a message and a mission: Accessibility for the disabled means accessibility for all.

Her employer was fairly accommodating of her requests for an alternative work station, speech-to-text software and an option to telework some days. Her coworkers were another story. Some of them simply didn’t know what to say when she came back to work as a triple amputee. Some people just stared, and many people downright avoided her. 

Rather than be discouraged by such experiences, Smith did what she does best: she took action. She’s written documentation for the Employment Office, offering ways coworkers can be more inclusive and accepting of people with disabilities; her recovery story has been highlighted on the agency’s employee intranet; and she’s planning on creating short videos and vignettes helping coworkers and others remember to treat people with disabilities as the person they are and not to focus on their disability.

Smith has also volunteered her time to work with younger kids who are disabled, and she recently attended A Night to Shine at Crest Hill Church in Bowie, Maryland, which is a prom night for kids ages 14-17 who have special needs.

“They thought I was one of the kids attending the prom,” she said, aware that even at 35, she is often assumed to be a decade younger, or more. Wearing her Ms. Wheelchair Maryland sash and crown, she took a lot of photos with the kids there, and she particularly enjoyed crowning each and every participant that evening.

However, of all the traumas and tragedies in her life these past couple of years, the most difficult of all was losing her mother in April, 2022. Smith is the child of two disabled parents. Her mother struggled with sarcoidosis, a rare and incurable, debilitating disease, from which she eventually died; and her father suffered four strokes, and now has some mobility and speech impediments. 

Yet despite–or perhaps because of–her challenges, she plows on full speed ahead. After living with her dad for a while, she finally found an apartment which was designed for a disabled tenant and one which she could afford. Smith, with her new-found accessibility mission, worked with the apartment complex to make sure she could actually live there. 

Unfortunately, a number of friendships from before her medical trauma didn’t make it through the fire. “Many of my friends were used to me being spontaneous and up for an adventure,” she says. “I’m still up for an adventure, but I can’t just walk out the door and go.” Smith now finds herself researching places she plans to visit to find out: Do they have a bathroom on the first floor? Or is the place accessible from the front? (She once had to enter a restaurant through the back alley where the trash was put, and that was one such experience too many for her.)

But, if in the process, she encourages even one restaurant owner to install a ramp then, in her words, “I’ve done my job.” 

Smith is relentless about advocacy for inclusiveness and wants to create an army of change agents trained to be accessibility advocates. Whether it’s a badge an ally gets when they learn how to remediate online documents for accessibility, or encouraging no-mouse website challenges to see if people with dexterity issues can navigate a website without using a mouse, or having more people actively discussing accessibility issues with business owners and others, Smith says, “I know it sounds cliché, but change in the world happens one step at a time.”

She also would eventually like to have an accessibility lab where community members, along with representatives from companies and government agencies, can come try, experience and learn about accessibility technologies. 

“Being disabled is a club anyone, at any time, for any reason can become a member of,” Smith says. “Accessible and universal design benefits everyone, whether that’s for those currently disabled, for those who may have a short-term disability from, say, an injury or surgery; and especially for the elderly, who often have reduced mobility, dexterity and vision as they age.”

Smith’s work is gaining attention and traction. In mid-February, she met with Congressman Glenn Ivey of Maryland’s Fourth District. Ivey’s wife had read an article about Smith, was impressed and told her husband he needed to meet Smith, and learn more about what she had to say. Smith received from Ivey a Congressional Award for Advocacy, Determination and Perseverance

And persevere she does. Smith heads to Michigan and the Ms. Wheelchair America contest in August, where she’ll compete against 35 other contestants. The local chapter created GoFundMe page to cover the estimated $10,000 she’ll need to travel there and be accommodated. Any additional funds raised and not used will be donated to the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland group, which set up the fundraising site for her.

Smith’s life lived is advocacy in and of itself. “My medical trauma and disability has helped me see that when you’re living–really living–you’re doing things that make you happy; you’re challenging yourself and pushing past your limits and comfort levels. Now, I understand my strength in ways I’d never even imagined possible before.” 

While her doctors, to this day, can’t explain how or why all her organs came back on line and started functioning again, she doesn’t need an explanation. She can see her path and while her own happiness is front and center, the importance of advocating for universal accessibility is a fire in her that only burns brighter by the day. 


Check her out and consider some funds sent her way for her GFM page and chance to win Ms. Wheelchair America, 2023.
And, yes, if you’re local ever need an inspirational speaker, consider giving her a call.

GoFundMe link –


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