Katie Smith has traveled the U.S. and the world, tried most adaptive sports, advocated for international disability inclusion and, most recently, began serving as the chapter leader for the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of United Spinal. It’s a full life that gives her plenty of experience for her day job — teaching youth with disabilities how to self-advocate as they transition to adulthood.
Life Lessons Through Adaptive Sports
Smith, a C6-7 quad, remembers the first time she went to a wheelchair rugby practice, fresh out of rehab and still figuring out life with a spinal cord injury. “I was in this big wheelchair with a seatbelt and anti-tippers, and it was just too wide for me, and they were like, ‘What are you in?’” she says. “They threw me in a rugby chair, knocked me around a little bit, and I never stopped going back.”
She loved how the sport provided an outlet for intense physicality even with her limited function, but even more she loved the engagement with her teammates. “I learned how to use a wheelchair in rehab, but I learned how to live life in a wheelchair from my peers on the rugby team,” Smith says. “One of the players, I ended up borrowing one of his old wheelchairs. It was much smaller and better fitting than the one I was in. And after I started driving, they taught me how to get that chair into the car on my own.”
As much as the practical pointers, the life experience of some of her more experienced teammates motivated Smith to expect more from her new life. “These guys have wives and kids and jobs, and they travel,” she says. “It’s stuff that you’re not sure you can still do or how you’re going to do it, and here they are doing it.”
Smith’s first independent travel experience after her disability was for a rugby tournament. One of her teammates picked her up, and the girlfriend of another teammate helped her with the tasks she still needed assistance with, like getting in and out of bed and showering. “It was such a supportive environment,” she says.
The support of a strong adaptive sports community in Western Pennsylvania has let Smith dabble at all sorts of different activities including boccia, horseback riding, yoga, Alpine skiing and handcycling, to name a few. In general, Smith has made a habit of saying yes to most opportunities that come her way.
Smith has fairly severe scoliosis, which she says is due to her spasticity and muscle tension. Massage helps, as does the muscle lengthening and tension reduction of adaptive yoga. Perhaps surprisingly, horseback riding also helps. “I got involved with riding as a therapeutic tool to help with my scoliosis and strengthening my core,” she says. “I feel my best when I’m engaged in yoga and horseback riding.”
By being willing to try just about anything, Smith has found ways to make taking care of her body and managing some of the secondary complications of SCI enjoyable. And in addition to the health benefits, recreation has taken Smith all over the world — she’s twice attended the international women’s rugby tournament in Paris, and the boccia world championships in Liverpool, England.
That first-hand experience in connecting with other wheelchair users across the globe motivated Smith to get involved with the Harkin Summit, which seeks to improve worldwide disability inclusion and employment. She’s attended all three summits held so far. “It’s really neat to see some ways that disability impacts the cultures and the way that all the different delegates come together to solve issues,” she says.
Explaining the Wheelchair
‘I’m Not a Transformer’
Smith, who has degrees in psychology and education, spent time substitute teaching in an elementary school before transitioning to her current job. While teaching, she made sure her kids’ experience with a wheelchair user was a fun one.
“Kids always wanted to know why I’m in a wheelchair. I used to explain it the first time I met them, but a friend suggested, ‘No, then they’re getting to know your disability before you.’ So, I started saying, ‘Oh, that’s a great story but I’ll give you that after recess.’ That way, they got to know me as a teacher, my funny stories and favorite children’s books, then I’d tell them why I’m in a wheelchair and explain spinal cord injury to them.
I encouraged every child to ask questions if they had them. They’d all raise their hands and ask questions like, ‘How did you get here?’ ‘Did your mom drop you off?’ I’d explain to them, ‘Oh no, I drove myself, and I just get into the car seat.’ And they’d ask, ‘How do you get out of your wheelchair?’ So I’d transfer onto the table to show them. Kids are very concrete thinkers — they’d be looking at you and the chair as one. When I’d transfer out onto the table, all of a sudden I’m no longer a Transformer.”
Best Thing About Hanging Out with Little Kids:
They have no filter and say exactly what comes into their heads.
Dream Adaptive Equipment:
One of those track chairs. I live in the woods, and I’d really like to be out there picking up logs and stuff.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I had done some peer support at the spinal cord injury unit at Mercy Hospital, and when the Western Pennsylvania chapter started, they asked me to come back and be involved with their peer support program.