Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023
Boulder resident Jennifer Ochs was recently named Ms. Wheelchair Colorado, a title earned by her advocacy and work on behalf of people with disabilities. She’s on her way to the national competition — Ms. Wheelchair America — in August.
We asked Jennifer a few questions about her advocacy, her experience with disability, and what she would do with the title of Ms. Wheelchair America. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you get involved with the Ms. Wheelchair competition?
I emailed the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, and they mentioned they were accepting applications for Ms. Wheelchair, an organization based on advocacy. It was started by a man (Dr. Philip K. Wood) doing a lot of work with women who were wheelchair users. He wanted to create a competition to show the world what we could do.
I filled out an online application saying what I’m involved with advocacy-wise, and I had letters of recommendation. They interviewed me basically like a job interview. Because Colorado doesn’t have a chapter, I’m entering as an independent elected. The national competition is in late August. After that, I will focus on building a Colorado chapter.
What are you hoping it brings to Colorado?
I really want to be able to pull women together and also shine a light on disability issues.
I’m all for women supporting women. If I could create a Colorado chapter, that could be great for other women. We’re ignored, invisible to society, but if we make a chapter, we can maybe shine a light on this and be like, ‘Hey, we’re people, too.’
A lot of people who are disabled have gone into crafting, so I’ve always wanted to build a clubhouse that has a storefront, too. I lived in South Carolina, and I got occupational therapy there. In the actual clinic, they had a workshop full of machinery, people made jewelry, they had a storefront. A lot of people that get involved in stuff don’t have the tools or space or anything. It was like therapy, and it was like a place for them to explore that.
How long have you been in Boulder?
I’ve lived directly in Boulder for about five years. Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing, they run Medicaid for Colorado, they helped me find affordable and accessible housing. So I’m in the community, in my own apartment. I’m really encouraging independent living. I’ve learned so much more living on my own than I ever would have in a nursing home. I’m so much happier. It’s on Arapahoe by the (Boulder Public) library. It’s a great location for wheelchair users. I can easily get around Boulder with RTD, Lyft and Uber
What are some of the issues you’re working on and/or most passionate about?
Apartment rent. We need rent control. I’m involved with a group called Colorado Homes for All. Rent control is going to be hard to get, so we’re going to start smaller. Right now, landlords can evict you for really anything. We want landlords to have to commit to finding you a new home, relocation fees, all that.
The backbone of independent living, we’re facing a national crisis on lack of caregivers. They’re facing horrible pay, no benefits, no career advancement. I’m working with Colorado Care Workers Unite, they have a website trying to do a Caregivers Bill of Rights. I’ve been working with a group of caregivers, I help them do awareness. We encourage caregivers, clients, family, — basically anyone who has had any experience with caregivers — to write a story and I post it on a blog I helped them create. It’s one of those issues you don’t really know about unless you need to use it.
At the CCU meeting, they mentioned we are expecting 49% growth in the population over 65, but only 14% growth in direct care workers. It’s already an issue, and if we don’t start fixing it now, it’s going to get worse.
What is your plan if you win Ms. Wheelchair USA?
If you win the national title, they will fly you around the country and basically you are the spokeswoman. That is my dream, to be a motivational speaker, so when I heard that I’m like, ‘I’m entering this.’
My No. 1 message is, you’re more capable than you know. If you would have asked my family or me six years ago if I’d be living on my own, nobody would have believed you. To me, it’s wasted talent. People give up on life, and they’re so used to having other people do things for them, they don’t do it themselves. That’s why I don’t like nursing homes. If you’re independent living, you’re forced to do it on your own.
I really want to promote the reality that just because I’m in a wheelchair, I’m not invisible. I’m 42, I’m single. I try not to be discouraged, but I swear people see my wheelchair before they see me. Before I was disabled, I had no problem dating or meeting people. I really hate the idea of that, like, I’m not noticed by the opposite sex or anyone. I’m disabled. I can still be funny and cool and hot. I just have a wheelchair. We really need confidence and to know we have a voice. That’s why I think a Ms. Wheelchair Colorado chapter would be great, because there’s support.
Of course everyone falls all over themselves to open the door or help you up, but once they’re done, they ignore you. You become invisible. I want to stop that. We’re all going to be needing some kind of wheelchair (or) walker at some point in my life, so we need to stop pretending that only able people can do things. We are community as well.
What else should I be asking? What’s critical to understanding you, your work, etc.?
I have a blog called Life After Disability. I always refer people to that, because it’s the way to understand me. When I became disabled, I was 33, and I felt like my life was over. I do this blog to tell people that life may throw you crap, but you can make it better, you can still go on, you can still have life after disability.
Oh, and I’m also trying to promote the bus stop snow shoveling volunteer program. Right when we had that horrible snow after Christmas, I missed a really important doctor visit because I couldn’t access the bus stop. I talked to Boulder City Council, and they said it’s really RTD’s responsibility. I talked to RTD and they said, ‘Well we shovel, but when the road plows come it goes back up.’ Councilwoman Nicole Speer and I are writing an article about why we need the snow removal service. From her point of view, she’s able, but she still needs a snow removal. Obviously me with a wheelchair, wheelchairs and snow just don’t mix. When you’re depending on public transportation, and it’s not cleared… We need to do something.
We’re really trying to bring the community together, because the fact is, there is not enough resources or funding with RTD or Boulder, so it’s kinda up to us. You can sign up online to shovel a bus stop. After hearing about that, one of (the student leader’s Speer knows) signed up, and now he monitors two bus stops for the CU students, and he scrapes them and shovels them.
I think we just need to let people know. We know it’s an issue: Here’s where we can go to work on a solution.
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