Post written by: Luis Rodriguez and Kyle Romano
Meeting Christine Garner, the very first thing you'll notice is her wonderful smile, framed by flowing locks of curly hair. Her bubbly demeanor captures you, first radiating from her eyes. When she speaks, you instantly realize, beyond her buoyant personality, that she is someone truly memorable. And though her life has been filled with difficulty, she persevered. Christine's inner strength and her gift for storytelling will inspire you. And as our current Ms. Wheelchair Florida, she is unforgettable.
As a person with a disability, Christine has a unique perspective on life. She navigates cerebral palsy; PVL (periventricular leukomalacia), a brain injury which manifests as "holes" in the brain; and Kienbock's disease, a condition which adversely affects the central bone in the wrists. Growing up with impairment-related limitations, she learned to be persistent and to speak up. Her sense of justice growing within her, and as a person with a disability, Christine was drawn toward advocacy work. For example, upon entering St. Pete College in her pursuit of a Bachelor's of Science in Biology, Christine learned that the Students With Disabilities Services department was not required to provide students with classroom aids. Yet, these aids would provide necessary assistance helping disabled students complete physical tasks such as note taking, retrieving binders, carrying books, and assisting with any other of a variety of important school activities. By law, public universities must ensure that all students with disabilities have the same ability to succeed as their able-bodied peers. So, because of this regulatory provision, Christine began advocating for these institutions to cover the cost of classroom aids for their students with disabilities.
Christine’s continued dedication to the disability community was unwavering. In addition to her studies, she began working for a Non-Profit called Heaven’s Drop. It is an invaluable source for both veterans and people with disabilities. Heaven’s Drop provides their employees with on-the-job training, teaching manufacturing skills to veterans and people with disabilities. By learning skills such as sewing, their employees have learned how to repurpose military parachutes. They are transformed into backpacks, assorted bags, keychains, and bandanas, just to name a few. While working at the Non-Profit, Christine is the 'go-to' person. Her responsibilities include promoting, creating packaging, organizing the warehouse, and taking phone calls.
Christine’s journey began with advocacy. So naturally, she was driven to pursue another platform that would allow her to make a greater impact on the community. At first, the twenty-two year old college student was reluctant. In response to the outcry of her family and friends, she was convinced by friends and family to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair Florida Pageant. Christine never imagined that she would hold the title of Ms. Wheelchair Florida. In fact, she never even thought that she should compete for it in the first place. So when the time came for the pageant, neither Christine nor her mom Tricia, expected much. After all, this occasion marked her first entry into pageantry and she was also its youngest contestant. To her pleasant surprise, Christine was appointed the title of Ms. Congeniality! Accomplishing this milestone far exceeded any of her or her mother's expectations. Her mom even thought to herself, "Well that's it. She won Ms. Congeniality!" The position, which is determined by a popular vote from the other contestants, qualified Christine for the title of Ms. Wheelchair Florida.
When the time finally came, Christine's name was announced as the overall winner of the pageant. She and her mother were in shock. Christine didn’t simply win. She was elected Ms. Wheelchair Florida by a unanimous vote!
Afterward, what ensued had been a whirlwind of excitement... and a new platform for her advocacy.
Christine's passion for helping others is at the center of her world. As Ms. Wheelchair Florida, she has expanded her role of representing people with disabilities. It was also very important for her to learn how to communicate about disability with others. “The biggest thing I learned is,” she said, “if you don’t know, ask. Educate yourself. Just open [up]. Most of us are willing to tell our story.”
Her strength and dedication invokes a sense of unity amongst the disability community, and promotes inclusion and acceptance in others. Christine advises both sides to learn from one another, “To be better advocates for themselves and each other. To break barriers and fulfill our dreams... We’re all the same. We all dream. We just need a little help, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
As Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Christine Garner continues to utilize her influence to insight change and champion movements for disability rights. Through her advocacy and involvement in our community, Christine hopes to continue to educate others about disability, and campaign for those who may be unable to.