BURRILLVILLE – Eight years ago, Tina Guenette-Pedersen walked into a hospital for a minor procedure and suffered a stroke to her spinal cord, which paralyzed her from the waist down.
It was far from the first setback for Guenette-Pedersen, a Rhode Island native who had already survived four bouts with cancer, four strokes and a heart attack.
But even for a self-proclaimed survivor, losing mobility was a big challenge.
“I was a very active mom,” Pedersen said of her life before the incident, which happened during what was expected to be a five-minute surgery. “I was that mom that was at everything.”
Suddenly, Pedersen went from serving as Boy Scout Troop leader and cheerleading coach, to being unable to even watch her children’s activities due to lack of access.
That same year, she joined an advocacy group for people with disabilities.
“Really, what motivated the advocacy is; I couldn’t do things,” she said. “I started educating, and advocating, and telling people how easy it was to change it.”
In 2019, Pedersen launched her own non-profit; RAMP, or Real Access Motivates Progress; focused on supporting people with disabilities, their families and their allies. The move, she said, came from a desire to reach and work on behalf a broader population, with the mission of access and inclusion for all.
“Disability is the largest minority in this country,” Pedersen said. “It is also the only minority that anyone can join at any time.”
She notes that 40 percent of Rhode Islanders have mobility issues, and that the rest of the population is just one accident away from joining the community.
“Don’t wait for it to be you or a family member,” Pedersen said. “Let’s have everything accessible and inclusive now. You cannot talk about diversity and inclusion, if you do not talk about disability.”
Through RAMP, Pedersen works with businesses and organizations to provide what she calls, “Accessibility for Dummies.” On “roll-throughs,” she tells others about solutions that work, from how to change doors to make them wide enough for those in wheelchairs, to where to find the grant funding to do it.
“People don’t know they’re not accessible until they see it,” she said. “That’s what we’re all about. We hold your hand and we walk you through it, every step of the way.”
The organization, funded through donations, also offers sensitivity training and other services free of charge.
“Nobody can say they can’t afford to learn about accessibility,” she said.
Her work also benefits the businesses, making it easier to bring in customers who are not just in wheelchairs, but who use canes, walkers or even just want to enter with baby carriages.
“You’re helping so many,” she said.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Pedersen’s advocacy only increased, and she launched a weekly podcast with The Coalition Talk Radio, now broadcast every Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“I did’t want the momentum we had going to just stop,” she said of the decision.
COVID-19 also brought to light other ways those with mobility issues needed help, and Pedersen began training small business to ask customers using contactless delivery service if they needed any accommodations – to avoid incidents such as leaving groceries outside and inaccessible to those who needed them.
And she says she watched as things such as video conferences and online meetings, which the disabled community had been told for years couldn’t be done, quickly became the norm.
Suddenly, she notes, “The entire world was in the disability community. No one likes staying home and being isolated.”
Of the increased access, she said, “It’s wonderful – but it’s not the only option.”
“Now that the world’s open, take us with you, because we don’t like it either,” Pedersen said. “We want to be viable members of the community, and get out and about with everyone else.”
Pedersen moved to Burrillville in 2020 after Habitat for Humanity built her an accessible house. In 2021, she held her first “Accessibility Is Beautiful,” event in Providence.
Held for the 2nd year again this month, the event, which features vendors and entertainment from disabled community, tripled in size.
Earlier this year, Pedersen came across the USA National SLICC Ambassador 2022 competition online, a pageant with a focus on community service. The Google search, she notes, came about as a joke in a conversation about things she, “can’t do,” such as run in pageant.
“This one is amazing,” she said, noting the top prize is a mission trip.
In a video submission for the competition, an acronym for Success through Leadership, Integrity, Character and Confidence, Pedersen notes she’s done 4,700 hours of community service in Rhode Island.
“My wheelchair is not holding me back,” she said. “It gives me wings and it makes me grow. Ability doesn’t make you who you are. Your heart makes you who you are. You could have all of the ability in the world and do nothing with it.”
At the event, held in July, Pedersen created a comedic performance for the talent competition.
“My doctor told me four times that I had six months to live. He’s obviously getting a bad review on Yelp,” she said. “I’m still here.”
Contestants were asked to discuss an issue that they care deeply about.
“Well, that’s an easy one,” she responded. “The acceptance of accessibility and inclusion with diversity. Opening your mind to changing your perspective is what’s going to change our world.”
“I did every single competition,” she later told NRI NOW. “There were no special accommodations made for me.”
Not surprisingly, her message resonated, and the verdict was in: Pedersen was named best overall talent and won the People’s Choice Award. She was also given a Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award, in addition to being named 2022 SLICC Ambassador.
In May, she’ll travel to Puerto Rico for mission work. and for the next year, she’ll be touring the country to raise awareness about accessibility.
“I want every organization to invite me to speak,” she said.
“As the only person of disability to compete at this level, in a main stream competition and win the national title, I’m proud to say we broke another barrier and the sky is the limit,” she noted in a social media post after winning the title.
Asked how she stays so positive amid setbacks in life, Pedersen said she has always tried to lead by example.
“This was just another obstacle,” she said of losing mobility. “I would have to either roll in a ball and cry about it, or suck it up and use it to help others. I’ve always been naturally a fighter. That was kind of always the way I lived my life. Your life is too short.”
“We want to be mainstream,” she added of those living with disabilities. “We’re not inspirational because we do the day to day. Being disabled is just another way of doing things. We have to work harder to do the same things as everyone else.”
“I have done more from my wheelchair than I ever did when I was walking,” she added.
Recently, Pedersen got another surprise honor when she was chosen as one of the models for Supermodels Unlimited.
“Someone put name in hat,” she said, noting that title winners get their picture on a billboard in Times Square.
“It was surreal,” she said of seeing her picture, wearing a crown, in Manhattan. “A little disabled girl from Burrillville… to get her picture on a Times Square billboard…”
In February, she’ll return to New York for Fashion Week.
“I’ve been living the dream,” she said.
To learn more about RAMP or to make a donation, visit their website at http://rampisinclusion.com/. Those interested in her work are also invited to contact Pedersen via Facebook or email at email@example.com.