Victoria Mavis: “Accessibility is being able to get in the building”

Although I have a physical disability, you have a disability too — it just may not be as obvious as mine. The importance of this is that many people judge individuals with disabilities as having less value or worth than others, when in fact they often are able to contribute at a higher level due to the […]

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Although I have a physical disability, you have a disability too — it just may not be as obvious as mine. The importance of this is that many people judge individuals with disabilities as having less value or worth than others, when in fact they often are able to contribute at a higher level due to the difficulties they’ve had to overcome or the unique characteristics they’ve developed due to their disability.

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

In 1964, Victoria had a tragic accident at the age of four that resulted in brain trauma and left her partially paralyzed. Facing a grim diagnosis, she fought for her life and relearned how to perform basic functions such as walking and talking. Within a year of her accident, she would be the first physically handicapped child to enter a school system that wasn’t equipped physically or culturally for her special needs. She was a pioneer for equality of treatment in an era when people who were handicapped were considered social misfits that should be institutionalized, were openly ridiculed, and were discriminated against for access to public systems. Victoria paved the way for others who “didn’t fit in” long before the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was ever proposed or before “bullying” was a community epidemic to resolve.

Victoria grew professionally and thrived in a world where her handicap was the “pink elephant” in the room which no one spoke about — including her. Details of her disability did not exist in a public dialogue or open conversation, as few outside her immediate family ever knew the story of what happened and knew even less of the horrific discrimination that she faced over the years by those who judged her abilities only by the gait of her walk. Friends, coworkers, and everyone she encountered would only be left with the power of her presence and her sheer will and determination to succeed.

Victoria is a speaker, author, and human resources (HR) professional who has owned her own businesses, as well as been employed by private industry ranging from privately held companies to large international manufacturing corporations. She holds an MBA, is lifetime certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) by the Society of Human Resource Management, and is also certified as a behavioral specialist. She has held memberships in Rotary International, BNI, and other business, professional, and community organizations.

Victoria has recently elected to retire from her full-time position working in Human Resources in Arkansas and relocate back to her Michigan roots to pursue a future of ‘giving back’ by continuing to develop programs for disability agencies, educational institutions, and healthcare providers to help individuals with disabilities gain an independent lifestyle through whatever means they are impassioned by.

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?

It began after decades of denying that I even had a story worth telling which others would be interested in hearing — a story that could impact people and change the world (at least my corner of it) in a positive manner since I believed that the only thing which would be gained from telling what happened to me would be pity for the tragedy I went through or what I didn’t have because of my limitations.

Then about ten years ago, I participated in a ‘self-discovery’ workshop of sorts and was blown away when stranger after stranger I met in the course shared with me I was an inspiration to them. As I had never viewed myself in that regard, I began on a journey (although I didn’t expect it to take this long to find the answer and finish the book), to discover what in my words, actions, or character was the source of their inspiration. Although I had a team to help me craft the final book, Every Scar Tells A Story, discovering the answer to my ‘inspiring characteristic’ challenged me to the core and was a journey that only I could make.

It’s been a decade since that workshop. After countless manuscript copies, I now know what I needed to do to tell my story was to put the past behind and quit playing the victim in my head by blaming my disability for life events that didn’t go the way I wanted. It’s clear now that living an empowered life and being at peace in my heart is embracing and celebrating everything I’ve been given — despite the ‘undesirables’ that may exist, whether that’s in the form of my disability or other characteristics and circumstances I don’t like about my life.

So the book is inspired by my life of hardships and challenges. It details the means that I and others whom I’ve been in the company of have used for strength to overcome whatever roadblocks may have been placed in their life either inadvertently or unconsciously. Its message is simple and clear; to share my hurdles and that of my characters with insights on how they were overcome, so that others may do the same on their journey to living a fulfilled 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”?

When I was four years old, my sister and I were living on a farm with distant relatives and awaiting adoption by them due to the pending divorce of our parents and their decision to permanently place us in the care of another family. One day in late August 1964, we were allowed to go up into the hayloft and play while the men (who later became my father and grandfather) worked.

At some point I left and went into the house to use the bathroom. Although I had been instructed not to return to the hayloft without someone with me, I came back alone only to discover that everyone had left. From afar, my sister saw me running toward the hayloft, reported where I was headed, and was instructed to go get me.

When she arrived, she yelled that I was in trouble for disobeying what we had been told. In fear of being punished for being there without an escort, there was a struggle near the top of the stairs to the loft and I fell head first from ten-feet above onto a cement floor. The only witness, my sister, ran to get help as I lay unconscious surrounded by a pool of blood.

I was transported by ambulance to a critical care hospital two hours away, where I remained in a coma for several weeks; the prognosis was dismal. I had suffered a severe neurological injury to the left side of my brain. The doctors said it was a miracle I was alive. They prepared the family for the reality that if I survived I would most likely spend the rest of my days in a vegetative state.

But I survived, despite coming out of the coma with effects similar to those of a stroke victim or someone with muscular dystrophy. I was paralyzed on my right side and had the vocal skills of an infant. It took years of physical therapy to retrain my brain; I had to relearn everything from walking to talking.

Since that day, my right side is smaller and weaker than my left, I walk with a limp and have used legs braces, wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, and other assistive devices to remain mobile throughout my life.

For the first few years after the accident, I didn’t have the awareness that my disability could stop me — so there was no mental shift to make. Despite how difficult it was for me to regain my physical and vocal functions, I simply followed what the doctor’s and my parents told me to do, which was exercise, try new things, do my best in everything I attempted, and when I fell — get up, wipe off my knees and continue on my journey.

By the time I reached junior high and high school, things changed and I needed to develop a mental shift as I was made fun of for my walk and often bullied for my disability, including being called names, having my lockers spray painted with the word, ’gimp’ and often shoved or tripped when I was in the cafeteria line. At those moments what kept me going was the faith that if I could just get through the day and get back home, it would all go away and the next day would be better. Although the teachers rarely witnessed t bullying behavior by others towards me, I was a smart student, and indirectly they taught me to build my life successes on my abilities (my intelligence), rather than focus on my disabilities.

Since then, I have embodied the belief that any obstacle is possible to overcome; however, it may require some thinking to get around it, or help from others. Like in gym class when we played softball, I couldn’t run, but I could hit. So I always had a pinch-runner waiting in the wings for my turn at bat. Or as an adult living independently, I couldn’t always carry packages in or my groceries; however, I could use a cart/carrier to transport items for me.

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

Over one’s lifetime, there are countless accomplishments that could be listed; however, the ones that have the most meaning when you recount your life are the ones that you worked the hardest for or believed you could never achieve. In light of that here’s my list:

  • Lived independently;
  • Been married (and divorced);
  • Climbed most of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix AZ;
  • Bought/sold my own houses (5), while remodeling 2 of them from scratch;
  • Traveled to Paris;
  • Worked for several Fortune 100 companies as the lead HR Manager/Professional for various employee groups;
  • Created and managed my own businesses;
  • Designed and maintained my dream garden;
  • Wrote and published my life-inspired book, Every Scar Tells a Story;
  • Took up photography, cooking, and gardening as hobbies; and
  • Participated in numerous conferences as a speaker on interpersonal communication, disability awareness, and self-advocacy.

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

Since every disability or limitation is as unique as the individual who has it, it’s tough to give blanket advice. That being said — find out what works for you to overcome the challenges you face and use ‘those tools’ every day. As life changes, you may need new tools. Be brave … be curious … be unstoppable. Therapist, doctors, or individuals who appear to have the same disability and limitations as you or knowledge of such, can only recommended what they have seen and heard that works for others. Ask, evaluate, and modify until you lock on to the answer for your situation. An example of this is a few months ago, I had knee surgery, and while in rehab, the therapists wanted me to move a certain muscle in order to gain strength and functionality — I couldn’t do it. After the fourth therapist requested that I attempt the same failed approach, I stopped her mid-sentence and said (probably in a curt tone), “it doesn’t work for me that way, so you will have to figure out another technique.” Although it wasn’t instantaneous, within a few sessions we had an alternate (perhaps you consider it an accommodation) to achieve the goal in rehab that I had previously been stopped by.

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?

Besides the faith I have that God will help me through life (although I’m sometimes not sure how at the time) there have been thousands of people I’ve met along a five-decade journey, encompassing the United States. Everyone played a part in my success. Many of the faces or names, I no longer remember; rather I recall how each of them made me feel at the time. If some knew their part, they would bow their head in shame, realizing they could have acted differently toward me or others like me; others would be brought to tears in humility by the realization that their interaction shaped my life mission. You see, I just wanted to be like everyone else; I wanted to fit in and never could. That is, until I realized the essence of my life as I lived it is my greatest gift: to inspire others, regardless of circumstance — regardless of my disability.

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

I believe in the past I’ve used my success to be the role model in everything I do, with every person I meet, of an unstoppable spirit and respectful individual, not just for people with disabilities, but for all people. Going into the future, since I will not be employed full time, I can choose where I want to be involved, be it as a speaker with a message to carry, or working one-to-one with those who just need a little help to get them beyond the obstacle in front of them and on their own journey to success. The possibilities of goodness that I can bring to the world are limitless. As my sister coined the phrase, “You now have a blank canvass on which you can create any future you want.” The exciting part is that future for me has already started and I’m buckling in for a wild ride!

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

  1. Although I have a physical disability, you have a disability too — it just may not be as obvious as mine. The importance of this is that many people judge individuals with disabilities as having less value or worth than others, when in fact they often are able to contribute at a higher level due to the difficulties they’ve had to overcome or the unique characteristics they’ve developed due to their disability.
  2. Ask what I need or don’t need before you make any assumptions on what I’m capable of. Rushing in to ‘save my day/be the hero’ is often an insult to what I am able to accomplish. Think, ask, listen, and then help where it has been identified that help is needed.
  3. Take time to learn about me beyond my physical limitations. This is how we show respect to others and everyone is seen for their unique talents and contributions they bring to the world and not just viewed as a person with a disability.
  4. Don’t assume that just because I have a physical limitation that prevents me from using my other gifts like my head or my heart. There have been hundreds of times people treat me as ‘normal’ when they first meet me and I’m seated, versus they meet me when I’m walking with crutches and they avoid engaging me as they would others whom they meet.
  5. Here’s the most recent social media post that goes to the heart of the matter (and I wish I could take credit for writing): Accessibility is being able to get in the building. Diversity is getting invited to the table. Inclusion is having a voice at the table. Belonging is having your voice heard at the table — All people regardless of ability/disability just want to be heard (respected) at the table!

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

You can’t control your future, you can only control your choices that make your future.

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 🙂

There are actual two who come to mind: Jon Bon Jovi and Sir Richard Branson. Although both are from different life and career perspectives, it is their transparent and continual commitment to ‘giving back’ that makes them each someone I would like to spend lunch discussing how we might do similar initiatives targeted to benefit individuals with disabilities. What might be possible for us to change the world so all with disabilities can contribute in meaningful ways, feel respected, and where possible financially support themselves rather than being dependent on limited income or a welfare system for their livelihood?

For me, I first heard of Jon Bon Jovi in the early 80s when he became famous as an American rock star, singer, and songwriter. However, his philanthropy peaked my interest in recent years as he has demonstrated a heart for helping others in his local community as well as everywhere he travels. I’m still brought to tears as I view his 2009 YouTube video with Jennifer Nettles singing, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” with the backdrop indicating his support for “Habitat for Humanity of Philadelphia”. Most recently his “JBJ Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant” is yet another earmark for his graciousness and creative giving in the New Jersey region in reaching out to those less fortunate by serving in-need customers with meals and encouraging community support and volunteerism to and by all.

As far as Sir Richard Branson, I became keenly aware of his lifetime of giving back when I attended a conference hosted by Dr. Ivan Misner, known as ‘The Father of Modern Networking’, and he discussed how he came to personally meet Sir Richard Branson and detailed some of his philanthropy efforts that he was currently involved with. After listening, I realized that it truly is possible to connect with anyone and so I put Sir Richard Branson on my radar as someone to learn more about. In researching, I was shocked when I understood the impact he has had to the world through a lifetime of philanthropy beginning with his first charity, “Student Valley Centre” when he was seventeen and now extending globally as he has pledged $3 billion, all profits from his travel firms over the next ten years, to the reduction of global warming.

I hope both are readers and look forward to our lunch!

And — Thank you for the graciousness of this interview. May it start the change we need to see in the world!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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