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Episode 8: Entrepreneur and Advocate Heidi McKenzie Makes her Mark with Humor and a Loud Voice

Heidi McKenzieJeff, Erik, and Dave talk with Heidi McKenzie, who is speaking from her home state of Kentucky. After a car accident left her as a T4 paraplegic in a wheelchair when she was just 21, she not just survived but started a thriving career and has been an outspoken advocate for folks with disabilities.

Heidi talks about what it was like to now live day-to-day in a power chair and learn her “new normal.” One of the pursuits that helped her find her voice and passion was the founding of her adaptive clothing company, Alter Ur Ego.

After she was crowned Ms. Kentucky and went on to Ms. Wheelchair America, she networked with other girls in wheelchairs and when they talked about their various struggles, one that kept coming up was the difficulty in finding cute but functional clothing. Heidi knew what she had to do.

Her line of clothes include items that fit well, are still easy to get on and off, and have unique aspects like pockets on the thighs and straps on the waistband that work specifically for women in wheelchairs. But equally important, Heidi’s clothes are still cute.

“I’m more of a diva than a fashionista . . . if you look good, you feel good.”

She talks about how, post-accident, instead of shrinking she almost became louder and amplified her voice. Now that she found a cause and a passion for helping people being seen as they are, and not just viewed through the lens of their disability, she continues to be happy and grateful.

“It hasn’t always been easy, but I love life and embrace everything that comes with it.”

Heidi McKenzie in the woodsHeidi’s line of clothing is her creative outlet but she also strives to be a living example to help broaden and educate others about the adaptive needs of people with disabilities. She never turns down a social invite or the chance to take part in a new sport. Heidi’s Facebook page is covered with photos of her smiling at the beach, trying out dance classes, surfing, and travel.

“I am who I am. I can still have fun and try different things—it’s all just in a different way.”

Creating Alter Ur Ego was a crucial part of Heidi’s recovery but she also needed her support system of family and friends. Later in the podcast, Heidi discusses being open to receiving help not just from those close to her but from new communities, like the group of friends she made at the 2017 No Barriers Summit.

“They’re my forever friends.”

Before she got to the point of advocating on behalf of others, Heidi first had to find acceptance of her situation. She realized part of being in a power chair was being stared at and even avoided. As a natural social butterfly and wanting to break down social barriers, Heidi has infused her clothing with humor.

Here are two slogans on her T-shirts:

“I literally can’t stand it.”

Being independent and having autonomy are huge for Heidi and others in wheelchairs. She now speaks to groups who legislate laws about the importance of including people who are disabled in decisions, such as including adaptive playground equipment or providing adequate parking.

By being part of Ms. Wheelchair America, her own barrier-breaking company, and her attitude in life, Heidi demonstrates the importance of representation and being a strong voice for her community.

Check out Heidi’s company: Alter Ur Ego
Like Heidi’s company on Facebook: Alter Ur Ego

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————————— EPISODE TRANSCRIPT —————————–

Heidi: Like, I’m just the same as I was before my accident. I’m almost louder because I feel like I have this voice, that I have a cause and passion about people being seen for who they are, not their disability, and you can find your own beauty.

Erik: It’s easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I’ve gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind.

Erik: It’s been a struggle to live what I call a no-barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process, this process of growth, and change and transformation that we’re all a part of. And trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way, like holds on a rock face that lead us forward and give us clues to why it’s so important we get there.
Erik: And that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no-barriers.

Dave: Today, we’ll meet Heidi McKenzie. Heidi was pursuing her dreams of a fashion career until a car accident left her a T4 paraplegic at the age of 21. She was now determined to not only continue following her passion, but to break barriers in the fashion world, and so she started Alter Ur Ego, a clothing line for people in wheelchairs.

Dave: With adaptive features such as accessible pockets and straps for ease of dressing. Her fashionable and functional designer jeans are her most popular item. Heidi is an outspoken advocate for accessibility in her home state of Kentucky, serving on various boards and working for community organizations. She was crowned Miss Wheelchair Kentucky in 2012.

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No Barriers

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