LOUISVILLE — These days, the only thing that can outshine Beth Bryant’s bright blue eyes is the sparkling crown perched atop her head.
Beth, a native of Louisville, kicked off her one-year reign as Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky on Jan. 1. She will spend 2017 traveling the Commonwealth and beyond, advocating for people with mobility impairment.
“My goal in life is to make the world a better place for people with disabilities, “ said Beth. “That was my goal before I used a wheelchair, and that’s my goal now. “
Beth was born with Myelomeningocele Spina Bifida, the most severe form of this neural tube defect, which causes the parts of the spinal cord and nerves to protrude from an opening in the spine. She used crutches or a walker until 2013, when a surgery aimed at repairing her spinal cord instead caused her to lose much of the feeling in her legs.
Beth is particularly focused on improving access to bathroom facilities. It’s a simple issue of dignity, she says.
In her first several weeks as Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky, Beth has already traveled hundreds of miles. She’s spoken to church groups, school children, community groups and even with Gov. Matt Bevin.
Catch me if you can
She’s no stranger to being on the go. Beth is an avid athlete, and her strong shoulders and arms bear witness to the hours she’s spent wheeling up and down the court playing with the Louisville Spokes and Spires wheelchair basketball team.
She’s also an active volunteer with the Spina Bifida Association of Kentucky, as well as an active member of Beechland Baptist Church in Louisville. She leads and serves a variety of ministry efforts, including coaching Upwards Sports teams, organizing fundraising dinners to support missions projects, starting a game night for adults with disabilities, singing in the choir and more.
It’s a rare Sunday or Wednesday night when one doesn’t hear Beth’s rich laugh ringing out from the middle of a circle of friends, with her sleek, silvery service dog Violet resting at her side. She has built a strong network of friends at Beechland, many of whom join her in her ministry efforts.
Closer to home, Beth also works as a nanny, rising well before dawn each day to provide before-school care for two young children. It’s a role she clearly loves; she speaks proudly and fondly of other children she’s cared for, and their families clearly return the love and affection.
Beth also cares for her father, Demmer, who himself struggles with mobility issues due to a muscle disease. And Demmer, as he’s done for more than 40 years, takes care of Beth.
The day Beth was born in 1968, doctors came to Demmer and told him they had good news, and they had bad news. The good news was his wife had come through labor and delivery just fine. The bad news was something was profoundly wrong with the little girl she’d just delivered.
The little girl’s spinal cord was exposed through a gap in her spine.
“They didn’t even give the birth defect a name, “ recalled Demmer. Doctors told him that the more he knew, the worse it would be.
“Scare me, “ Demmer insisted. “Tell me the worst that’s going to happen. “
She had only a 10 percent chance at even surviving, the doctors said. She won’t be able to walk. She’ll be “a vegetable. “ Just turn her over to the hospital, let us make her comfortable until she passes, and move on.
“Everything they said was negative, “ said Demmer. But he refused to give up. At his insistence, doctors closed up the hole in her back, tucking the exposed spinal cord back into place.
He took his wife and daughter home, and began the long, hard work of advocating for his daughter in a world where the Americans with Disabilities Act was decades away.
“They kept telling me what she wouldn’t be able to do, “ Demmer said. “I just didn’t tell her. “
Instead, he taught her she could do whatever she set her mind to doing. She’d just have to figure out a different way to do it.
Beth learned to walk with the aid of a walker, and learned to navigate the stairs in her home. Demmer rigged up a series of pipe and rope in their yard, so young Beth could make her way around outside. He took her to the petting zoo at the Louisville Zoo, armed with treats for the animals. He urged her to leave her walker behind and feed the animals, a clever ruse aimed at getting her to push herself and strengthen her legs.
When the time came for Beth to go to school, Demmer fought against school officials who wanted to place her in an elementary school on a single floor. No, said Demmer, she needs to navigate the steps, just like any other child.
The battle didn’t stop with there. Demmer learned that Beth was being left alone in her second-floor classroom while her classmates were outside during recess.
Furious, Demmer walked up the outside steps to Beth’s classroom during recess time one day, only to find his daughter all alone. He led her down the stairs and took her home, then returned to the school and asked for his daughter. The panicked staff told him they didn’t know where she was.
Demmer played the situation out for the better part of an hour, allowing staff to believe Beth was truly lost, before finally telling them he had Beth all along. It was the last time she was left alone in the classroom while her classmates played outside.
“It was unorthodox, the way I handled the situation, “ said Demmer with a chuckle. “And maybe I would handle the situation differently today. “
‘God has given me strength’
Beth learned her father’s lessons in determination and advocacy well. Thanks in part to Beth’s advocacy and the advocacy of others, medical professionals no longer paint such a bleak picture of prospects for children born with disabilities. They also present anxious parents with the hopeful side of the situation, too, pointing to people like Beth as examples of just how rich and full life can turn out to be.
At the heart of the Bryant’s hope is their faith. Beth was raised in church, where Demmer was active in leading children’s ministry. She decided to follow Jesus as a child.
“Every obstacle, every struggle, every surgery, there’s a reason I’ve had to go through it. God’s given me the strength to get through it, “ said Beth.
“With the struggles, God has given me strength, “ said Beth. “My faith just gets stronger and stronger each day. “ (WR)
Brenda Rick Smith