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[Weekly Q&A]

Ms. Wheelchair Nevada Ashley Varndell on disability and acceptance

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Ms. Wheelchair Nevada Ashley Varndell looks good in a tiara, and she can refinish your floors, too.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Don’t tell Ashley Varndell she can’t do something. Ms. Wheelchair Nevada 2013 will likely ignore you and do it anyway, whether it’s joining a basketball team or refinishing her hardwood floors. But one thing the 32-year-old Las Vegan wouldn’t do for a long time was sit down.

Your platform as Ms. Wheelchair Nevada is the anti-bully challenge: to not bully yourself or others. What do you mean by not bully yourself? Just to accept yourself. I’ve been disabled for 22 years, and that came on when I was 10. It’s totally undiagnosed. I was told that I would be in a wheelchair by the age of 18, and I was so not accepting of that that I forced myself to use a walker until the age of 29. It’s like I was too proud of what the world would think if I were in a wheelchair. And then a good friend told me that it doesn’t really matter if you’re in a wheelchair or on a walker, disabled is disabled. So I made the choice to use a wheelchair, and it’s been life-changing. That’s the whole part of don’t bully yourself, just accept yourself.

How did your disability start? It started when I was 10, and I basically just stared falling for no reason and dragging my leg. ... It’s 100 percent undiagnosed. If you name the test, I’ve had it done, and everything comes back normal. In addition to that, I had necrosis of the right hip, which is where the bone dies. But it kept dying and coming back, which is not normal. So that caused it to be an egg and socket (joint) instead of a ball and socket. In 2010, I had a total right hip replacement. I was still stubborn, and for a year I used my walker and a full leg brace. I finally decided I didn’t want to be in pain.

At what point did you realize that you might never get a diagnosis? I think that I realized it a long time ago. I think I just accepted it recently, probably within the last two years. … Ultimately, it just is what it is. I just have to accept it. Am I going to continue to beat myself up and go to doctors and try to force someone to find some miraculous cure that’s probably not going to happen? … After the hip replacement, it just kinda made me realize that I just have to accept this. And I really have. I realize that it makes me who I am.

What has it been like to be given the title of Ms. Wheelchair Nevada? It’s been life-changing, just meeting people, speaking to people, letting them know my story, finding out other people’s stories. Back in Virginia, where I moved here from, there’s not a huge disability community. Las Vegas is phenomenal. There’s just so much disability awareness in this town; it’s mind-blowing.

You’re also an athlete who plays wheelchair basketball. It’s mainly for fun. It’s with the Clark County School District. We play once a week. ... And it’s a great workout. There really is a skill to it. You can’t just go shoot the ball. They don’t lower the net for us, either, so it’s 10-foot.

What did your family say when you told them you wanted to stop using the walker and start using the wheelchair? My sister was very supportive, and once she realized, she didn’t worry about me anymore. She didn’t worry that I was going to fall. She didn’t worry that it was going to take me an hour to carry my groceries in. Now I can just throw them on the back of my wheelchair. My mom was a little bit on the opposite end. She kinda thought I was giving up on myself. She doesn’t live here, so she couldn’t see all the greatness that I can do now. I can hold my nieces. We can go to the mall and I can hold one of them on my lap. Once a week I actually watch them, and I could not do that standing. There’s no way.

What do you do when you’re not being Ms. Wheelchair Nevada and just being Ashley? I work for Home Depot. I’m actually the store lead generator. I remodeled my entire house in Virginia, and I did probably 75 percent of the work by myself.

Do people ever look at your disability and say you can’t do that? I don’t usually tell people about (my projects) until after the fact. They’re like, “No, there’s no way you could have done that,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I did.” Right before I moved here I had to completely refinish my hardwood floors, and it was a lot of work, but I did them all by myself. It was a lot of crying and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but they look fabulous.

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