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Joci Scott: “Disability is not a bad word”

Disability is not a bad word. Able-bodied people are afraid of being offensive, so they substitute the word disability with phrases like “special needs,” “differently-abled,” or “handicapable.” While everyone has their preferences of how they want to identify, many people choose to identify as disabled. If we as adults learn to use “disability” in everyday […]

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Disability is not a bad word. Able-bodied people are afraid of being offensive, so they substitute the word disability with phrases like “special needs,” “differently-abled,” or “handicapable.” While everyone has their preferences of how they want to identify, many people choose to identify as disabled. If we as adults learn to use “disability” in everyday conversation, we can start setting examples for our kids to teach them to not fear or avoid people with disabilities. Every kid deserves to play with friends on the playground.


As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joci Scott.

When Joci Scott was 20 years old, her whole world was shattered after she became paralyzed from the waist down in a small plane crash in Poughkeepsie, New York. When the doctors told her she likely would never walk again, she became determined to build the life she had always dreamed of from the seat of her new wheelchair, while still working hard to regain as much motor function as possible. Joci promptly returned to her favorite hobby, the theater, just weeks after her accident, and defied all expectation that she could jump right back into performing.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/6223a5e7759043bba18dcf11f8ae2a86


Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I am 22 years old, and I grew up in the small town of Bath, Ohio. I am a senior at Ohio State University studying psychology and theater. Prior to my accident, I was very active in theater at school and in the community, I ran a half-marathon, I loved to travel and spend time exploring the outdoors. The week before the accident, I had just finished performing in the chorus of “Mamma Mia!” at a local community theater, Weathervane Playhouse. I had great relationships with my parents and two siblings, had a long-term boyfriend and great friends, and pretty much loved my life.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

On July 19, 2019, my parents, brother, and I were on our way to pick my sister up from camp in Rhode Island. It was a normal day like any other — my dad has been flying us in his plane since I was very young. While we were flying, my dad told us that we were running out of fuel and the landing might be a little bumpy. I didn’t think anything of it until my dad suddenly turned the plane away from the runway and we crashed into some bushes. Once we’d landed, I knew something was wrong because I couldn’t feel my legs, and my back was in horrible pain. When the paramedics arrived, they took my dad, my brother, and me to different hospitals, and my mom came with me. After being evaluated in the ER, I went into a 7 hour surgery to stabilize my spine. The next thing I remember was a few days later, when the doctors told me I had a spinal cord injury as a result of breaking my L3 vertebrae. They told me it was unlikely that I would walk again, and that I would need to spend a long time in physical and occupational therapy to try to gain function and independence back.

It took me a while to process that I may not walk again, but right away I knew I didn’t want this accident to define me. I didn’t want the pitiful and horrified looks from people who found out what happened to me, and for it to be all they remembered about me. Initially I focused all of my efforts towards walking again, and I have made quite a bit of progress so far. But when it didn’t happen immediately, I decided I cared more about being happy with what I have now than about spending all my energy towards something that I can’t really control. If I’m going to heal, then I will, but spending all of my time thinking about it is just going to make me anxious and unhappy. Once I decided that it was okay to be happy with being a wheelchair user, that was the most liberating thing I could have done. So many doors have opened up for me since then.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?

When I got home from the hospital in September 2019, I got a call from my dance teacher Marissa Leenarts on behalf of Weathervane Playhouse. She and our friend Josh Larkin wanted me to perform in their upcoming production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I was really unsure about it at first, because I couldn’t even sit up from the back of my wheelchair, let alone dance across a stage in it. They expressed their faith in me, and with their support and my parents’, I agreed to participate. It was challenging to adopt the mindset that my body moved in a different way than it used to, but more than anything I just loved being back on the stage, and it was the one thing that made me feel like myself again during those first few months.

Since then, I’m on track to graduate on time from Ohio State, despite missing a semester; I’ll be competing in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant in July, and I’ve been able to connect with some amazing women through the Rollettes’ dance classes and their Boundless Babe Society. I’ve completed a half-marathon using a hand-cycle, learned to walk using an exoskeleton, and KAFO leg braces. I’ve also been able to do some hiking out west, and I even did some white-water rafting!

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

It’s not fair that we as people with disabilities have to try so much harder to operate in this world that wasn’t designed for us, but in order to achieve equality we have to show society that we deserve a seat at the table. If there is something you really want to do, but it doesn’t look accessible or doable, talk to someone in charge who can make arrangements for you. We all deserve to be able to do the things that we want to do.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

There are so many people I am grateful towards, and an even smaller few that I could not be where I am without them. The first being my mother, who never left my side in the hospital, took care of me for months, and encouraged me to work hard to get back to my life, even when I didn’t feel like it myself. The second being my boyfriend Alex, who went through a major life change with me, and showed unwavering support and compassion as I learned to adjust to life in my wheelchair. Josh Larkin and Marissa Leenarts, who asked me to jump into their show just two weeks after being discharged, and always had faith in me to give a performance to the quality of before my accident. The others, my father, brother and sister, best friends, theater community, there are too many to name. Just know that I am eternally grateful.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I performed in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I sang and danced as a member of the ensemble, and we performed with choirs from local elementary schools. I don’t know how much exposure those kids had to someone using a wheelchair before, but I think for them to see me singing and dancing with the rest of the cast taught them that just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t participate in things like theater. After an article came out about me doing the show, a few of them even came up to me and said they were so inspired that I was back on the stage so soon. There were a lot of adults who were shocked that I did so well, too. They were worried that I would lose my sparkle onstage, but that’s the thing that kept me going through the worst of it. I never did it for the praise and the accolades, I just wanted to do something I loved more than anything, and prove to myself that I could still do the things I loved.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

  1. Ableism pervades our society and our thoughts. It is not only instinct, but taught that disability is taboo, along with misconceptions that disabled people cannot be independent, have very sad and miserable lives, etc. The more we work towards confronting those tendencies, the sooner we will be able to fully integrate people with disabilities into our society.
  2. Disability doesn’t mean no abilities — it is a spectrum. Each person is different and has different things they can accomplish themselves, and other things they would need help with. Instead of assuming someone does need help or can’t speak for themselves, it is always better to ask first.
  3. Limitations are created by society, not the condition. A common misconception that circles around is that people with disabilities don’t leave the house. While this is still not true, a lot of the reason people with disabilities aren’t seen out and about is because much of our communities are still inaccessible. It is difficult to navigate a society that isn’t built for you. This circles back to assumptions, and remember that it is possible you are placing limitations on someone else, too.
  4. Not all physical disabilities are visible. Everyone sees a wheelchair and accepts that that person using it has a disability. But if that person moves their feet or adjusts their leg, many people would start to think that person is faking it. There are many conditions that would require someone to use a wheelchair other than paralysis; chronic illness, connective tissue disorders, limb differences, and more. It is important to remember that disability does not discriminate; it’s not always an elderly person who has trouble walking that needs disability accommodations.
  5. Disability is not a bad word. Able-bodied people are afraid of being offensive, so they substitute the word disability with phrases like “special needs,” “differently-abled,” or “handicapable.” While everyone has their preferences of how they want to identify, many people choose to identify as disabled. If we as adults learn to use “disability” in everyday conversation, we can start setting examples for our kids to teach them to not fear or avoid people with disabilities. Every kid deserves to play with friends on the playground.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Ali Stroker, the first actress using a wheelchair to win a Tony Award, lives by the motto, ”Make your limitations your opportunities.” I had the opportunity to meet her about a year ago, and I was really inspired by this quote. Since then, I have done my best to do that, and it’s led me to incredible organizations like Ms. Wheelchair USA and the Rollettes. It doesn’t only apply to someone with a disability, either.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

I would love to have lunch with Lin-Manuel Miranda. I love his work and the way his music sparks the soul. He is so creative, and has done so much for the Latinx community in the theater world.

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