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.
Dave: Hello, and welcome to our No Barriers Podcast. We’re really excited for our guest today, Heidi McKenzie, who will be joining us in just a little bit here, is going to share a very powerful story that I think we can all learn lessons from, but I thought we’d start off, this is Dave Shurna, I’m the executive director and co-founder of No Barriers, and I’m joined by Erik and Jeff as always. Erik and Jeff, hello. How you guys doing?
Jeff: Hi Dave. Hi everybody.
Erik: Doing great.
Dave: Yeah, well why don’t we get started with our guest? We’re really thrilled to be joined today by Heidi McKenzie, and Heidi, we’ll be learning about her story today, but she came to us via one of our No Barriers annual events that we call the No Barriers Summit, which is an extraordinary multi-day event for several thousand individuals from all walks of life that includes inspirational speakers, and performers, and challenges everyone with the course of a few days to try something new, something they’ve never done before. So Heidi, welcome.
Heidi: Hi. How are you?
Jeff: Welcome, Heidi.
Erik: Heidi, you were in Lake Tahoe at our last summit, so that’s really cool. Was that the first time you had seen those incredible mountains with tons of snow was last year?
Heidi: Yes, and it was gorgeous, and Lake Tahoe was even more gorgeous than all the pictures. I would have loved to have done a cannonball in it but I was a little chilly. So I don’t think that would have been that great.
Erik: I’m excited to talk to you really because you’re such a creative spirit and you’ve done so much with your life and you’re an entrepreneur and it’s really exciting to talk to. A lot of times we talk to athletes and things like that, and I know you’re an athlete, but I mean your real path has been to be an entrepreneur, to create this incredible fashion business, and tell us about it. Tell us how that got started.
Jeff: And real quick, would you consider yourself a fashionista? Would you accept that descriptor?
Heidi: Most definitely, but I’m more of a diva than a fashionista.
Jeff: So it’s more about the swag than it is the clothes then. I got yeah.
Heidi: Exactly yes. Because my logo is if you look good you feel good. Just showing that, breaking down social barriers through fashion so that it’s more about the person rather than their disability. I am in a wheelchair due to in a car accident 10 years ago. I’ve had to adapt and learn my new normal of being in a power chair.
Heidi: And it hasn’t always been easy but then again I love life and totally embrace everything that comes with it. And so I was Miss Wheelchair Kentucky 2012. I’m doing my wave right now but you can’t see it. You can just hear the hand wave back and forth.
Jeff: Do you wear a tiara? Did you get a tiara [inaudible 00:05:56] Nice.
Heidi: Yes. All the fun stuff. And from there then I went to Miss Wheelchair America where I met 26 other girls from different states. And being able to network with that many other girls in wheelchairs and be my first experience we got to talk about our struggles and one of them was clothing, finding something that fit us and something that was easy to get on and off.
Heidi: And since I didn’t really want to look like my grandma with the adaptable clothing that was available I decided to create it. So I designed a pair of jeans that have pockets on the thighs because front and back pockets are totally useless to someone in a wheelchair. So then I have the back rise of the jeans are higher than in the front because when you’re bending over your crack is showing and crack is wack and we got you covered.
Heidi: One of the slogans I stick to. Then there’s also customized length options and, also on the waistband, there are straps to help pull your pants up wheelchair you’re getting dressed in bed or in your chair. Just trying to make the obstacles that someone with a disability faces just one thing a little bit easier throughout their day.
Erik: So it’s like functional changes and things and adaptations that you’ve made to your line. But look, and you just tell me to shut up if this is being presumptuous, so I imagine when a guy goes through a change, a challenge like getting hurt and being in a chair you sort of feel maybe like you lose some masculinity or something like that. But when you’re a woman and you’re in a chair I imagine there’s like a little bit of …
Erik: Is there any fear like, “Oh God, I’ve lost the ability to be beautiful,” or anything like that. I’m wondering if there’s a bigger cause or mission behind your work where it’s like, “Hey. Let’s make this cool and hip and beautiful to celebrate this life rather than just functional stuff.
Heidi: No. You definitely nailed it. Something that I have noticed with girls that I have met in chairs, like I’m just the same as I was before my accident. I’m almost louder and more obnoxious than I was before 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 beauty is one thing.
Heidi: I definitely feel like beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you can find your own beauty. It doesn’t have to be the status quo of what everybody else thinks is beautiful. Like you do you and whatever makes you feel good about yourself and gives you confidence in your daily activities when it comes to meeting new people and trying new sports and new activities. I think it definitely shows when you have that confidence that you can reach a lot more goals that way.
Dave: Heidi, have you always been a businesswoman? Has that always been something you aspire to?
Heidi: Well, kind of because my dad owns a concrete business and my brother owns a business. So it’s kind of instilled into me. I’ve kind of … It’s gone down generations for sure.
Dave: And what’s been the feedback to the launch of this really exciting new line of business? What’s been some of the feedback you’ve received?
Heidi: It’s really great. People are like, “Wow.” When I tell me about adaptable clothing they’re like, “I honestly didn’t even think there was anything different, that somebody would need something different for being in a wheelchair.” I think it’s about education. Not that people don’t know or are mean about it, it’s just they’re uneducated about people with disabilities and don’t know some of the things that we necessarily need.
Heidi: And so educating the public in just clothing and even adaptable sports and things like that. It’s really cool to show people just the different sports that I try and things that I go do so they don’t think of me more of as a hermit, but I’m always on the go and getting into something new.
Jeff: Heidi, this obviously was a big tool for you as you transitioned pre-accident to post-accident. I see what, four years after your accident you graduated and got your bachelor’s degree. Would you agree that, obviously, this business venture was a big tool for you going forward? And if so, can you give us a few more examples of how you transitioned pre-accident, post-accident with regards to the people you engage with, your friends, your family, and just personally some things that you experienced as you made this transition?
Heidi: Yes. One thing that was huge in my recovery was my family and friends, my support system of always being there for me and never making me feel any different. Like getting into different places that had steps, my family and friends always thought of that for me like, “Okay. This is how we’re going to get you in. We’re going to pick you up,” or, “We’re going to pick your chair up.”
Heidi: They made everything possible to me, and that was a huge thing. But then personally was me accepting it and learning that I am who I am and I can still have fun and try different things. It’s all just in a different way. And being able to accept being in a wheelchair and little things like people are going to stare.
Heidi: One of my coping mechanisms was that I just think they’re curious. “Okay. Why is she in a wheelchair? What happened?” I found a way to be okay with that all on my own, which is something that a lot of people struggle with. They feel like everyone’s pointing them out. I always joke and always talk about the perks. People are going to stare and point when we’re getting the front row parking spot and they have to park at the end of the parking lot.
Heidi: You know, things like that that we’re able to shine and light on. And humor has been a huge instrument in a coping mechanism. Like the way I get through a lot of things is joking about it, finding the humor in it and making other people at ease because people don’t always know what to say to you.
Heidi: I always try and make them feel the most awkward that they can and then from there like then joke about it and put them at ease that I’m still a person. I’m just sitting down. I don’t need to be treated any different.
Erik: That humor has extended to your clothing too. What’s your t-shirt say? One of the things [crosstalk 00:15:06]
Heidi: “I’m in it for the parking,” and there’s another one that says, “I literally can’t stand it.”
Heidi: That’s another thing, if you see someone roll into a room and they have one of those t-shirts on you’re automatically going to be like, “Okay. She’s cool.” I mean, she’s obviously has a sense of humor and can joke and be at ease around them.
Erik: Well I feel like at one time I was on the mic at a No Barriers Summit and I told the board, I said, “Stand up and let people recognize you,” and Wellman afterwards, Wellman’s in a chair, Mark Wellman, one of our founders, and he’s like, “Hey dude, you dumbass. Well, the standing up thing wasn’t going to happen.” And I was just like, “Ah.” And I just slapped myself in the head.
Jeff: Very insensitive Weihenmayer.
Erik: I know.
Heidi: Seriously. I’m offended right now.
Dave: Heidi, when I hear you telling this story you have such a positive outlook on something that for many could of really beat them down and put them into a dark place. You talk about the humor. You talk about the team around you that supported you. But I imagine there probably have been some pretty dark times for you in this journey of yours.
Dave: And I wonder if you’d feel comfortable just sharing a little bit about some of those darker times and how do you get through those moments? Part of this podcast is about not just highlighting individuals like you who have been able to transition out of what could have been a really difficult thing that could have led you to a bad place, but put it into a real positive. So talk us through some of those darker moments for you and how you got them.
Heidi: I mean, still to this day I have days that I don’t want to get out of bed or face people because I don’t feel like I’m on my game that way or feel [inaudible 00:17:23] put on that smile when things are tough. Now you’re going to make me cry. Why are you guys … What are you doing to me?
Erik: That’s our [inaudible 00:17:34]
Heidi: Right? Is this one of those shows that it’s like, “Yeah, let’s see how quick we can get her to cry.”
Erik: Yeah. Oprah’s about to step in.
Dave: Actually our goal is always to get Jeff to cry.
Heidi: Oh, okay.
Jeff: We’ll give you a parting gift at the end. So it’s all worth it.
Heidi: All right. Totally worth it.
Jeff: So keep going. Wait, we don’t want to lose this moment. Keep going. Keep going.
Heidi: So just-
Jeff: Start crying again.
Heidi: Right? Get back to the tears. Just having to face life’s obstacles and everything’s not always easy. I mean, worrying about where you’re going and if you’re going to be able to get in. I like to take somebody with me to have that safety net of them having the legs that work and making sure if I can’t get in somewhere they can go inside and ask someone for me.
Heidi: Just everything … Like driving. I can drive, but I joke about parking but the one thing about parking is the van access lines, I don’t know if you guys know what they’re really for. The blue diagonal lines is where I put out my ramp, and then I roll [inaudible 00:19:00] and then close it up. So if someone parks too close to me then I’m not able to get in my van.
Heidi: So then I have to resort to going inside and having them call over a loudspeaker, which if you’re at a mall or something like that you’re pretty much shit out of luck. So, that and I mean thank goodness I don’t mind asking for help and will have someone move my van for me. But the thing that comes down to it is that it creates me from not being independent.
Heidi: And where I have worked so hard to be independent for something that someone who is just being ignorant it sucks. It really sucks and having to deal with [inaudible 00:20:02] it seems like a little thing, but it’s those little [inaudible 00:20:04] that keep piling up that I kind of brush under the rug just to get by. But sometimes it’s just like it becomes too much.
Dave: Well you talk about your voice having to get louder too, right, you were saying?
Heidi: Yeah. Actually having a voice to speak for other people because some people just are okay with everything and don’t want to cause a scene or make a fuss about things. But it’s so much that, it’s more about educating people. And I mean, it’s not like you have to get angry and cuss someone out just for parking where they shouldn’t be but educating them and like, “Hey. This is what this is for and could you not park there?”
Heidi: Because then they’re going to go ahead and tell someone else and create more of an [inaudible 00:21:09] of what we go through and the little things that we need.
Dave: I was up in Breckenridge with my buddy Mike who’s in a chair and we were going to this restaurant. We were all excited and there was a big snowbank in front of the wheelchair accessible ramp and we couldn’t go in the restaurant because of that. So I was like kind of ballistic I have to admit.
Dave: I was like, “Don’t be so casual as to have a huge snow bank in front of the wheelchair ramp.” That affected our ability to go to dinner together. So you must experience other things like that and what’s your thoughts about accessibility in the US let’s say.
Heidi: I’m a part of a few different groups here in Kentucky that legislate laws for people with disabilities. Like one of the things is when it does snow people plow the snow, like you said right, into the accessible parking areas. So that there creates a barrier for us. There’s no way around that, having to find another parking spot and then worrying about whether you can get in and out of your car with snow not being plowed.
Heidi: And then little things like restaurants having ramps to their buildings, just any kind of business. And I believe there was a bill passed or something that businesses don’t have to get something changed right away and that the person who comes and complains about it has to come back like six weeks later and that’s how long they have to make that adjustment.
Heidi: Which is I mean … Unless it’s somewhere that you frequent, then how are you going to remember that place six weeks ago? I think the biggest thing we can do is just keep raising awareness and keep talking about these different things. Even if it isn’t a law maybe we can convince people that it is and go that route. That’s where I’m going.
Erik: And clearly Heidi, it begins and ends on the local and state regional levels. It sounds like you are an advocate in a grassroots way. And, obviously, I’m sure that you see the impact more there. So I applaud you for getting involved. And do you feel like there’s good representation in the state of Kentucky and folks are out saying, “Hey, the ADA isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. We need to have a little bit stronger of a voice.”
Heidi: Yeah. Actually, there’s a guy here who raised the fee for parking in the handicap parking spots. I feel like a state we’re doing pretty good. And also I was just at the state capital today with a group that I’m on the board of called Kendyl and Friends Foundation, which they create adaptive playgrounds.
Heidi: And so like swings where a wheelchair can get on, or like a merry-go-round there it’s in the round that I would just be able to roll on and it twirl around. And they are working on getting a bill passed that all the new playgrounds that are being built, that they include some type of equipment material or design for children with or without disabilities so that kids are able to have the same play opportunities. I feel like we’re doing pretty good in that category.
Dave: Heidi, I’d love to hear, and to transition a little bit, you told your story in a very nice condensed format at the very beginning of this podcast. But I want to hear what it’s like to be Miss Wheelchair Kentucky and then go on to compete in Miss Wheelchair USA. What is that like?
Heidi: Okay. So, in 2012 is when I was crowned Miss Wheelchair Kentucky. I was an advocate for those in wheelchairs. I was just Miss Wheelchair for a year. And just traveling the US and sharing my story and talking to people. Loved wearing a crown and a sash and having a pageant wave with me at all times. From there is where I went to Miss Wheelchair America where I met the girls from different states where I’m still friends with.
Heidi: I go visit them and go to different camps in their states, so still keep in touch. And then just this last year I am running for Miss Wheelchair USA. I’m currently Miss Wheelchair Kentucky USA. In July, I’ll go compete in the Miss Wheelchair USA pageant in Ohio. But when it comes to a wheelchair pageant we don’t have a talent. Like I’m not throwing fiery batons around or rolling around in a swimsuit.
Heidi: It’s mainly how you present yourself and you creating awareness and being an advocate. That’s what they strive most on is the representation of the person in the chair. It’s fun. I love it. It gives me more of a platform for people to be like, “Oh. She has a crown and a sash so she must have something to talk about.” I grab on to anything that someone wants me to come speak at.
Heidi: I just spoke to a group of kids that have an afterschool program and they were like third and fourth graders and they have journals that they write in about dreaming big. Being able to say, “Hey. Life isn’t always peaches and cream, but this is how I’ve learned to deal with it and how I’ve adapted to life in a wheelchair.” And their responses are always so funny because you ask them if they have any questions and [inaudible 00:28:31] “Oh, I mean. My grandma’s mom or my grandma was in a wheelchair and we made a ramp for her.”
Heidi: Then they just go on to something like, “I got a gift card from her and we went to Walmart,” and you know just random that it’s so fun to talk to kids just because they’re so innocent in their little minds. But they’re so considerate and passionate about people and what they go through and just being curious. It’s always fun.
Dave: Where can our listeners go to buy a new pair of your jeans?
Heidi: That is-
Jeff: Specifically the ones that you wear.
Heidi: The ones that are on me, on my person-
Erik: Those are more valuable.
Heidi: Alterurego.co. It’s A-L-T-E-R-U-R-E-G-O.C-O. So when I started Alter Ur Ego I thought like, “Oh, .co is the new and up and coming .com.” But I mean I feel like it didn’t catch on like it should of, so it’s one of those things you live and you learn and then you buy with the .com but you still brand with the .co because it looks cool. That’s where I’m at with it.
Erik: Yeah, you got to get both.
Jeff: Well, it’s a great website. I was telling you that before we came on the air. It’s really, really cool. And then of course that’s a good segue into my comment which is down at the very bottom you have this block that says, “Why not.” And then there’s a picture of Heidi holding the pair of pants up with a big font that says, “Get in my pants.”
Jeff: So, there you go. You’re amazing how, and you’ve mentioned throughout is just how you infuse humor with all the things that you do and that makes you very approachable. And I think that that shows how solid of an ambassador you are throughout all the things that you do.
Heidi: Awe, thank you.
Dave: And I started off mentioning that you connected with No Barriers through the summit, and I think maybe it’d be good to finish up here with just telling us a little bit about what the No Barriers Summit meant to you.
Heidi: Yes. Being connected to No Barriers through Sasha and then winning the Reach Award for being an entrepreneur was amazing because then like that first day we got to meet with the other Reach Award recipients and it was really cool to … You know, when you go in a room where there’s so many people it’s really hard to connect with just a few.
Heidi: And the first night, the meeting that we had, it was really cool because getting to meet those other Reach Award recipients and then [inaudible 00:31:46] them the whole [inaudible 00:31:47] was really great. But going to Lake Tahoe and … I mean, Lake Tahoe is just gorgeous. I can’t even describe how amazing. But I got to go scuba diving.
Heidi: That was really awesome. Then also one thing I want to mention is the hike that we went on. Oh my gosh. I was on a track chair. Erik, do you know how much those track chairs weigh?
Erik: They’re really heavy. I mean, like more than one human being could pick up.
Jeff: Yeah. Several hundred pounds.
Heidi: Yes. I was in a track chair and so something happened where it didn’t get charged all the way the night before or something was up with the battery where they weren’t sure how long it would last. They had these guys just hook on like straps to it and pull me the whole entire way. I mean [inaudible 00:33:05] through little puddles, through a little stream. I mean, these guys were troopers and I called them my squad because they were with me the whole time.
Heidi: And then sometimes other people would come and be like, “Oh, you want me to help while you’re getting tired and you rest a second?” And nobody knew me and the fact that they were just like, “Okay. This is what we got to do. She’s got to get to the end.” And just amazing with how compassionate they were about this whole vision of no barriers and them being like, “Okay. We’re not making any for this girl.
Heidi: So we’re going to pull her thousand pound ass all the way through this trail.” And it was just like an ah moment where … I mean, there’s no way you can thank those people for not even knowing who I was or anything and just straining their selves and tiring out from I don’t even know how long the hike was. Erik, do you know how long that hike was?
Erik: A couple hours. They told they were just psyched to hang out with you because you were wearing your Kentucky crown.
Heidi: Yes. Yes. There was that too. I mean, I kept it comical and enjoyable for them so I know they didn’t get bored. But they, yeah. They’re my forever friends for-
Jeff: There’s a really cool website …. Sorry. I’m sorry. A really cool clip. There’s a really cool clip that shows that I was able to watch. Erik, do you know or Dave do you know where somebody could watch that? Because that was my first introduction to Heidi. Her attitude is clearly infectious when you just watch that clip. Do you guys know where you can find that as a Reach Award winner for people to see?
Dave: All of our videos like these are posted on our YouTube channel at No Barriers USA. If you search for that you should find it there.
Erik: Yeah, yeah. You’ll see a lot of people charging through a huge mud puddle. So, it was pretty cool.
Heidi: Yes. They were afraid to take my tank through it.
Erik: One lady fell flat on her face.
Dave: Well, Heidi, it’s been a great pleasure to have you here on our podcast. We really appreciate you joining us and love that you are a terrific member of our No Barriers community now. Thank you so much for your time and your energy and your passion, for all you’re doing to raise awareness about people with disabilities and kind of shift the perspective that people have in this space. We really appreciate it.
Heidi: Yes. Thank you so much.
Jeff: You’re awesome Heidi. Thanks for joining us.
Erik: Thank you, Heidi.
Heidi: Any time.
Dave: Well, Erik, Jeff, another great conversation here on our No Barriers podcast. Jeff, what do you hear that kind of stood out as you think about the conversation?
Jeff: Well, two things. Number one is Heidi’s humor and sort of the way she marches through life. Never having met her I can tell that she’s the kind of person that can lighten any mood. I’m sure when she engages with she just makes them as effervescent as she is.
Jeff: And then the other thing that was really remarkable is I just loved the fact that pre-accident she had this entrepreneurial spirit that was just … She obviously had been brought up that way and it was just going to be a part of her life no matter what. She was this transformational experience and she has to work with all these physical challenges.
Jeff: But yet, nothing within her entrepreneurial attitude and fabric was changed. It just stayed. If not maybe it was emboldened and I love that and I admire that and I honor that, and I’m so glad there’s people out there like Heidi.
Erik: Yeah. I like how her voice had to get louder. I think she said that in the beginning of the interview. Yeah, when things happen to you sometimes you’re sort of forced to become an advocate it sounds like otherwise you miss out. You get stuck in this little corner and you just miss out on all the adventure and all the opportunity of life.
Erik: So your voice gets louder, you become an advocate, and her outlet is such a creative way of changing the world through her business. Like we’ve seen people do it through sports and do it through different kind of endeavors, but to do it through this creative pursuit I think is really special.
Dave: Yeah. And as I listen to her one thing that stood out that I’m hoping the three of us can explore in future podcasts is there was this moment of the conversation where she got choked up and I wrote down she said, “Sometimes it’s just hard to get out of bed.” And I was reflecting as she said that and after she said it on how many people in our No Barriers community have said that to me over the years.
Dave: And I think that difficult decision to just take a step forward and get out of bed despite all the shit you’re dealing with is a hard one for people. And I think how do you do it in those moments when you feel like you just can’t is a space I’d love to continue to explore with the two of you.
Jeff: She’s a testimony to how that works. You put a smile on your face and you go even in spite of the hardness or the grittiness that is going to face you as soon as you step out of that bed literally and figuratively.
Erik: And this podcast is just getting started, but I mean that’s what we want to pursue. That’s what we want to figure out, what is that map. What does that journey look like for people? Hearing Heidi’s journey is really illuminating to be able to kind of have some takeaways. Thanks to Heidi, and hey, live life no barriers.
Dave: No barriers. Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show notes can be found at Nobarrierspodcast.com.
Dave: Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast includes producers Didrik Johnck and Pauline Schaefer, sound design, editing and mixing by Jessie Singer and Tyler Kaufman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelly. Thanks to all you amazing people for the great work you do.