Maria Rabaino is a professional dancer who also happens to use a wheelchair in her day to day life. On February 13, 2012, Maria had just started her second semester at college, and she was in a horrible car crash resulting in a broken back at the L1 level that paralyzed her from the hips down.
With the mindset of becoming as independent as quickly as possible, Maria spent a month and a half in the hospital learning how to adjust to her new life. Not only did she become independent faster than most people in her experience, but she found a new passion through dance by joining the Rollettes wheelchair dance team. She speaks at schools about the dangers of getting in the car with someone who has been drinking, appeared in a TJ Maxx Commercial, was part of the first wheelchair dance team to ever perform at World of dance, and competed at the ICU world Championships for the Para-cheer Hip Hop division. Maria has recently opened up about her health journey and how she created leg workouts for wheelchair users who have the ability to strengthen their legs. She continues to explore health and fitness and motivate others to focus on what they can do to live the healthiest life possible.
In This Episode, You Will Learn:
- How Maria regained her independence.
- What it was like to join the Rollettes.
- The challenges of ableism.
- How abled individuals can become allies.
Connect with Maria:
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Maria, thank you so much for taking time to hang with me today.
Of course, thank you.
Can you take us back to February 2012? It was obviously not a great season of your life, but it’s a very important time for us in terms of setting the tone for this conversation. What happened in February? Walk us through that part of your journey.
I was a college student, starting my second semester. I was a typical stressed out college student. Trying to pay bills, trying to work enough, trying to study. I wasn’t really doing well in school. My tax return came back and I was going to make enough money to be able to pay my rent for a couple of months and be a little less stressed because of that. My friends invited me to go drink beer one night. I was the only one under 21 at the time, so I said, “Yeah, but I’m not driving. I’ll have to ride with one of you guys.” So, they followed me and we dropped off my car at my apartment and then we just hopped into their car and we went. We were drinking beer and hanging out, it was a regular night. The next thing I remember; I woke up at the hospital.
I had no memory of what happened but I was able to put things together eventually. It turned out that the driver had been speeding in the rain and he had also been drunk. He lost control of the car and we hit two trees, spun across the street and landed next to a bush. The seatbelt, while it kept me alive and it kept me from getting brain damage, it did break my back at the L1 level. It damaged my spinal cord, but not entirely. I have gained leg function over the years, but I am still a fulltime wheelchair user.
I can’t even imagine this. You wake up in the hospital and you don’t have any memory? What are the first words that come out of your mouth? Who was the first person you see?
The first person that I saw was my dad. I woke up looking up at my dad and I asked him what happened. He told me that I was in a car accident. I asked if my friends were okay and he told me that the driver didn’t make it. I fell asleep after that because I was on so much medication. Thinking about it later, that was definitely not a good moment to find out what had happened. I was trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together while I was in and out because of the medication that I was on at the time.
How many days were you in the hospital? What was your next step out of the hospital?
In total, I was in the hospital for about a month and a half. I was in the pediatric ICU for maybe four or five days. I was then moved to trauma for about a week and a half. I spent the rest of my time at Shriners Hospital for Children, which was across the street from the current hospital that I was at. They transferred me over there and I spent the rest of my time there, learning how to function in a wheelchair.
What’s going through your head? You’re young, you’re 20 years old and you must be trying to figure everything out. You’ve got your whole life in front of you. Are you devastated? Are you crying all the time? Are you depressed? Are you fired up and motivated? What’s going on?
I was so focused on getting my independence back. My family is amazing, they’re so supportive. They started making fun of me right away. They were like, “Maria, you were the shortest person in the family then. You’re still the shortest person in the family, nothing’s changed.” I had a great support system and I was in high spirits most of the time. I definitely had my moments, where I would get frustrated and angry. But for the most part, I was in good spirits and motivated to get my independence back. I didn’t want to move back into my parent’s house. I eventually did have to, but that was only temporary.
What about the relationships with those who you were with that night? How did that play out for you?
The other person that was in the car that did survive, we had a strong relationship while we were healing. We would kind of race each other and compete over who got to have a shower first or who got to eat first. I won all the little stuff like showering and eating first. But he won the driving first and the moving out first. We had a really strong relationship throughout the healing process, but the driver who had passed away was his best friend. I had only met him two weeks prior, so I didn’t know him as well. We eventually grew apart after we started healing. I definitely wish him the best and I hope he’s doing well.
As I’ve read about your story, I heard that a few months later, you were watching a reality show on TV. Is that right?
When I was still in the hospital, I was told about this reality show called Push Girls that had come out. I was so excited. I get injured and right when I get injured, they’re promoting a show about women in wheelchairs. Like, it was just perfect timing. My family and I, we were all reaching out. We were looking up everything we possibly could. My dad and my mom found Chelsie’s dad on Facebook and sent him a message. He called my dad and then Chelsie called me. A couple weeks later they drove up to Sacramento.
Chelsie was a competitor? I’m not sure about the show. She was on the show?
Yes, she was on the show. The show isn’t a competition, it’s just about five women in wheelchairs and about how they live their daily life. Chelsie was one of the girls on the show and she was my age. She was the newest injury on the show. She was about two years injured at the time. It was just really exciting when she called me. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m talking to a reality TV star.”
And when they drove up from Monterey to Sacramento to meet me, we were able to talk for a little bit. I got some advice from her and it was really great. A couple weeks after that, she called me and told me she was going to this dance camp and she wanted to know if I wanted to come with her. I had no idea what I was doing in this chair, but I wanted to learn more. So being surrounded by other women in chairs, I said, “Yes.” It was supposed to be this one-time thing but it blew up into what everyone now knows as the Rollettes.
Wow. So, you didn’t have dance experience prior to that, but you had been a cheerleader, is that right?
Okay, so you’re showing up to this event and there are other women who are in chairs. What was that event like? That was probably one of the first times you were surrounded by other women in similar situations. What was that like?
It was a lot of fun watching us try to get in and out of hallways at the same time and trying to get all of our chairs into a limited number of cars. It was a lot of fun, but anytime we met a challenge, we were just like, “Alright, let’s figure it out.” It was so much fun. And just being eye level with everyone was so important to me. I loved just not having to crank my neck up to talk to somebody.
So, then there was some sort of synergy that began to happen there and a dance group was formed out of that initial experience? Tell us about the Rollettes. What is it? How would describe the style of dance? Who’s involved? Give us the background on it.
The Rollettes exist to empower women with disabilities to live boundlessly and shift perspective through dance. Dance is the activity that we do, but we also know that behind all the dancing, we are motivating other women who have disabilities or use wheelchairs, to just go for your goals and achieve them. Dance is just the way that we reach for our goals.
In the beginning, we were all really scattered. We didn’t all live in the same area. Some girls have come and gone, but most of the girls live in L.A. now. In the beginning, we would meet the night before an event and practice and just perform what we practiced. Now we’re practicing a lot more consistently and coming up with new routines more often. It’s definitely become a lot more professional as we’re figuring things out. Again, it was really only supposed to be this one-time thing, so now we’re figuring out how to do this.
Obviously, there’s a ton of dance styles, but how would you describe the style of the Rollettes?
We mainly do hip-hop or today’s best hits. We have done a country routine, a jazz routine, we’ve done a variety of dances. But we mostly stick to hip-hop. It’s a lot of fun.
Where do you guys usually perform
We perform at a lot of the Abilities Expo’s, which is like a giant shopping mall for people with disabilities. You can find things from vans, ramps, clothing, wheelchairs, the whole shebang. Last year, we’ve started going to a lot of bigger performances and we even met the Rockettes. We also competed for the first time at the ICU World Championships for the ParaCheer Hip Hop division. We’ve been everywhere. It’s really hard to pick places where we frequently go, because we go to a lot of places.
That’s so awesome. What’s the reaction when people see you dancing as a group for the first time? What’s the reaction from people who are disabled and people who are abled? What are people saying and thinking?
People are just in love that we’re doing what we’re doing. They’re like, “This is amazing. I’m so happy I got to see this.” Some people say they’re intimidated to talk to us afterwards, but we’re just as excited to meet them as they’re excited to see us. We’re just immediately like, “Hi! How are you?” It’s always a positive reaction to people. We’re always excited to see them, they’re excited to see us and I love it.
So, I don’t know if it’s happened more than once, but I know it’s coming up in 2019; you guys host something that you call the Rollettes Experience. I watched the video that highlighted last year’s event and I had chills. It was just so exciting to watch this video. We’ll link to it in our show notes, but what is the Rollettes Experience?
The Rollettes Experience is a dance camp for women in wheelchairs. The first camp that I went to all those years ago, before it was officially a team, was a “Rollettes Experience”. But it was private and basically invite only. Throughout the years, we’ve expanded a little bit. Back then we had maybe like 16 or 20 girls attend. Last year we had over 100 women attend the Rollettes Experience from ten different countries.
We had over 20 kids attend as well and it just blew up. We made it public and we started accepting kids and we worked really hard to bring people in. The Rollettes Experience is again, to empower other women with disabilities; so, we do dance, we have make-up classes, we had a pyjama party and a pool party. We also hosted our Be Boundless Summit, which is an award show for all the people that have made a positive difference for the disabled community.
Online, I’ve seen this mantra campaign that you talk about called Be Boundless. Did the Rollettes come up with that?
Yes, we came up with the Be Boundless campaign because over the years anytime there was a news article written about us or some sort of video, we always heard, “Wheelchair-bound dance team does this.” “Wheelchair-bound girl does this.” We aren’t bound to our chairs. We transfer into them. This chair gives us the freedom to go and do what we want to do in our life.
So, we started the campaign and we came up with a bunch of words or questions that people would stereotypically ask us. Like, “Do you sleep in your chair?” Mine was, “Help” written over my face. Sometimes it’s hard for us to ask for help because we want to be independent women. We really wanted people to know that they can live boundlessly and that they should strive to be boundless either physically, mentally or emotionally. We wanted them to know that they can live a more independent life than they’re already living.
That’s really powerful. So, outside of the Rollettes, you also have your own Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channel; Maria Muscles?
Maria Muscle, okay. Not multiple muscles, just one muscle. Tell me about this, what are you doing?
For a while, even though I was fine with being in a chair, I was still having a hard time adjusting and I had started gaining weight. I was completely oblivious to the weight gain, but I was also really unhappy. I was tired more frequently and just down. I was not my normal self. One day in the beginning of 2017, I was like, “Let me just try being healthier. Maybe that’s all I need to do.”
I started small. I cut out soda and I started eating healthier meals. Not the best meals, but definitely healthier. I entered a fitness challenge. It was a free challenge online and that was when the working out started. Before that, I was having a hard time finding workouts that were a fit for me. If you look up adaptive workouts, it’s mainly one person sitting in their chair doing bicep curls. Which is great, but I have more to me than just biceps. And then, if I looked up regular workouts, it was like squat jumps. I can’t do squat jumps. I really had to find that middle ground of what’s challenging enough for me, but also something that isn’t impossible.
On day, one of my friends suggested that I just hold onto my walker while doing squats. I was thinking, “Why don’t I?” I tried that and I filmed it and then other people were giving me more ideas for working out. It really just became a passion of mine to inspire people to live the healthiest life that they can. It’s been amazing putting my videos up. People are reaching out to me saying, “I didn’t know what I could do and this video has helped me figure out other things I can do to work out.” I’m like, “That’s why I do it. Thank you so much.”
You may not know the answer to this question, but do you happen to know how many individuals are using wheelchairs fulltime in America? I know that’s a random question.
I don’t know off the top of my head, but I do know that the disabled community in general – all disabilities; physical, mental – is the largest minority group. I know in general, one in five people have a disability and at least half the nation knows somebody with a disability.
I also read perhaps on the Rollettes website, that spinal cord injury is the only disability that anyone could experience at any point in time.
Yes, exactly. Disability does not discriminate. We have one girl Edna; she became a spinal cord injury really young into her life. She wasn’t even one year old; she was only a couple months old when they found a tumor on her back. When they were removing the tumor, they damaged her spinal cord. So, she’s been in a wheelchair her whole life. I was in a car crash. Some girls, their immune system just attacks their spinal cord and they end up paralyzed. It’s called transverse myelitis, it’s very rare, but we have two of the girls that are with us that have experienced that. So, yeah, it can happen to anybody at any time. Not age, gender or race, nothing. It doesn’t matter who you are, you could become disabled at any point in time of your life.
One of the terms that I’ve read in your material is this term “Ableism”. For those who haven’t heard that term or maybe they don’t know what it is, can you define that and talk about how that’s personally impacted your own life?
So, ableism is the prejudices against people with disabilities. Things like, we can’t work, we can’t get a job, we can’t get into a building because it’s not ADA compliant. I’ve experienced it in a lot of different ways. The most frustrating way is generally people’s reactions. One time there was this lady and she was parked in the extra space between the accessible spots. I was frustrated, but I also wanted to educate her at the same time. So, I pulled up in the spot next to her and said, “Excuse me, this isn’t…”
Wait, you can drive?
Yeah, I can drive, exactly. People don’t really understand a lot of that. But yes, we have hand controls for us to be able to drive. But I pulled up next to her and I was like, “Excuse me, this isn’t a parking spot. It’s there so I can get my wheelchair in and out of the car.” Maybe my voice was a little more frustrated, but she’s like, “You don’t have to be a bitch about it.” I was like, “I’m sorry, but I do have a right to be frustrated about this.”
It’s things like that, from people ignorantly parking in the accessible spots or sometimes you see comments where people say that we’re just lazy or that we’re doing this for attention. Which obliviously isn’t the case at all. Even people who have hidden disabilities, people think that they’re not really disabled because they don’t see the disability. There’s a large variety of things.
What would you say is the most common misunderstanding that you encounter on a daily basis?
People use wheelchairs for a variety of reasons and it doesn’t have to be because they’re paralyzed. For me, I have leg function. Not enough to walk, but it makes getting dressed a lot easier. It makes my balance a lot better. But there are people who use wheelchairs that can walk, they just can’t walk long distance, either because of respiratory issues or maybe they have fragile bones. There’s a whole variety of reasons.
So, when people see me move my legs, they automatically think that I’ll be walking next month. Or that I’m faking it or I’m in it for the attention. For a while I hid my leg function. I wouldn’t really talk about it unless it was pointed it and then I would kind of show it. But when I started working out, I really started embracing the leg function and dealing with the comments of, “You’re using a wheelchair, that’s not right.” It sucks, but I’ve just got to educate them and show them what it is.
I have to admit – I guess I would say, I’ve had this misunderstanding, prejudice or maybe it’s ableism, when it comes to individuals who are different than me in terms of physical or even mental and cognitive abilities. I generally don’t say anything, because my mouth is shut. I’m not going to be the person that’s going to say something whacky, but in my head, I might have this automatic thought like, “Wow. Look at that, they’re married.” Or, “Look at that, they’re driving.” Or, “Wow, look at that, they’ve got this job.” I’m not trying to rude or hurtful and I don’t want to be an ableist. But at the same time, I recognize “Wow, I do have these thoughts,” and then I feel stupid because I start to ask myself, “Well, why wouldn’t I think that they could do that?”
Help somebody like me who’s wanting to be more thoughtful, more considerate and more open minded. What would you suggest? Coach me.
Look things up on social media. Find the Rollettes. Find another wheelchair user. You’ll learn a lot. We open up about our disabilities there more than anywhere else. It’s a great starting point to learn that people can drive and people can get married. When you see it on social media, you can see that we do live normal lives. We may do it in a little bit of a different way, like with our hand controls, so that way we can drive with our hands instead of our feet. Getting dressed is a little bit of a challenge, but it’s easy for us now.
Learning the things that we have to learn is really easy. Learning the things that we want to learn is a bit of a challenge. But it eventually just becomes second nature for us and it becomes our new normal. I mean, anybody who doesn’t know anything about disabilities, you can reach out to any of us on social media. We’re the people who are the most open. There are some people with disabilities that don’t like talking about it, but the ones on social media love opening up. It’s great that you’re curious. We’re happy that you are. This is how it is for us and we’re happy.
I’ve also heard the term “being an ally”. It’s obviously a totally different situation, but sort of like how someone who identifies as LGBTQ, who goes, “Man, they are our allies that are with us on this journey.” What does it mean to go from just learning about something and being educated, to actually being more proactive? I think of an ally somebody who’s like, “Okay, I’m not going to do something hurtful or disparaging or negative. But I’m actually going to be proactive and move towards positivity.” What would that look like?
That would look like speaking up when you see accessibility issues. That really is our biggest physical barrier. If you see a building without a ramp or without a wheelchair lift, ask, “Hey, are you going to get that? People with wheelchairs need this.” Or if you see somebody parking into an accessible spot, maybe speaking up and saying, “If you’re not disabled and you don’t have a plaque, you shouldn’t be parking here.”
Speaking up more about it or even just sharing articles about us that educate more people. Because if somebody doesn’t have a loved one in their life that has a disability, they generally don’t think about it. I definitely didn’t think about disability when I was first injured. I never thought about it before. But learning about it and just educating more people about it is always helpful for us.
Last question. For somebody who’s listening who has some sort of disability, maybe they’re not in a wheelchair, but maybe they’re struggling with something. What would be your encouragement to them today?
My biggest thing is always telling people to focus on what they can do, instead of what they can’t do. No matter what you’re going through, I totally believe in you. Just focus on the things you can do. When I was on my fitness journey, I had no idea what I was doing and I was discouraged because I couldn’t find workouts that worked for me. If I had stuck to that path, I wouldn’t have lost the weight that I did. If instead focusing on what you can’t do, you’ll find out that you can surprise yourself and realize that there are more things that you can do than you originally thought.
I love it. That is super inspiring. Maria, I appreciate you sharing your story. I love what the Rollettes are doing. We’ll link to all of the social media and connections with the Rollettes and of course what you’re doing with your workouts. I’ve watched a couple of your videos and I was tired just watching you.