by Amy Saffell
Greatness lies within us all, however sometimes we don’t recognize our potential without someone else’s help. This is the case with the newly-crowned Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts, Patti Panzarino. What started out as an ordinary trip to get her wheelchair serviced turned into much more. A woman who worked at the shop mentioned the pageant to Patti, mentioning that she happened to be on the board of directors and thought that she would be a great contestant. Patti had never thought of herself as the “pageant type.” Particularly at the age of 53, she had her reservations about a pageant, but after learning that the contest focused on advocacy and accomplishment, she began to consider the idea a little more. With the encouragement of this woman and her husband, who she married in August of 2011, Patti was eventually convinced to compete.
Although she was originally reluctant to participate, as Patti began to prepare and the days got closer, she became increasingly motivated and excited. Becoming a part of this pageant meant something to Patti, and she wanted to put her nerves aside. She was worried that her accomplishments thus far weren’t on par with the other contestants, nonetheless Patti stuck with the process.
It wasn’t until she began filling out the pageant application, and saw her accomplishments laid out before her, that Patti began to realize that she did have a long history of achievements. Patti was able to connect a lot of what she experienced as a child to philosophies that she now lives by as an adult. “As you look back on your answers you write down, you realize all that you’ve done,” Patti said. While that application may have been one of the most tedious parts of the process, it ended up giving Patti the deeper confidence that she needed to go into the pageant believing in herself.
A Lifetime of Preparation
Patti realized that all along, even in her childhood, she had known what it took to rise above her disability and to succeed. Growing up in the ‘60s with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Patti learned that one of the keys to having success as a person with a disability was to be creative. Her sister, who also had a disability, was her mentor, teaching her how to do things in ways that someone without a disability would never think about doing. Having someone with a disability help to navigate her through becoming independent was important to her, inspiring Patti to want to become a mentor to others.
Patti also discovered that perseverance had been instilled within her at a young age. She broke barriers at a time when many people with disabilities were stifled by society’s notion that they didn’t have dreams and goals like everyone else. Patti had a desire to fit into mainstream society. She joined the Girl Scouts long before girls with disabilities were common in local troops, and she found ways to earn the same badges that the other girls were earning. At school, she was always in a mainstream classroom. Despite occasional opposition, Patti graduated from high school and then enrolled at Hofstra University ,where she lived independently and majored in Interdisciplinary Studies. No matter what it took, she just never gave up.
Preparing for the pageant reminded Patti of the importance that music had in the development of her character. She grew up with music in the house at all times. Patti began piano lessons at age 6. These lessons served a variety of purposes, one of which was that playing the piano was a form of therapy to strengthen her hands, but it enabled her to do so with an activity that she shared with many of her classmates. Instead of therapy isolating her from her peers, it actually united her. In addition, piano also developed her sense of creativity. There were times where she couldn’t stretch her hand to reach the keys for specific songs, so her teacher would help her think of a new way to play them. It was during this process of learning to adapt that Patti developed good problem solving skills. Patti said that she learned to “assess situations anywhere. When you hit a wall, turn around and go the other direction,” which is a skill that she now uses each day in every aspect of her life. These days, Patti remains commited to music and is the lead singer, keyboardist, and songwriter for the band OLYPSYS.
|Patti was a guest on WBSM radio station where she talked |
about her pageant experience and her platform of Creative Perseverance
Her Crowning Moment
Despite her renewed sense of confidence, Patti did feel the pressure when it came down to the wire. On the day of the pageant, original doubts crept back into Patti’s mind, but they were mixed with anticipation. “I was a wreck, but it was great,” she recalled. Citing the importance of the day, Patti joked, “I woke up at 6:30, and I’m a musician, so I don’t normally get up that early.” She wanted to make sure that her hair, makeup, and outfit were perfect, not to mention having her talking points set in her mind. Her platform that day was, and will be for the rest of the year, “Creative Perseverance,” which Patti uses to describe her way of using creativity to overcome challenges.
The Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Pageant, sponsored by the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Foundation, is not a beauty pageant. It’s an advocacy forum in the form of a competition consisting of personal and onstage interviews, a platform speech, and past accomplishments to select the most articulate spokesperson for advocacy around the state. One of Patti’s favorite aspects of the pageant was meeting the other women competing. They all come from different backgrounds, and although they were competing, they were really all advocating for the same cause. The contestants also got to meet people from a variety of organizations, from wheelchair companies to adaptive yoga instructors, to provide them with helpful information for wherever life takes them next.
Patti felt positive about how all aspects of the day went for her, but she was stunned to hear her name called as the winner. In fact, a couple months later, it’s all still sinking in: “I feel like my alarm is going to go off, and it will all be a dream!”
Using Her Voice
Patti is proud to wear a crown that serves as much more than a sparkly accessory. “I have a voice now,” she said. “The crown gives you a voice to make a difference in society.” While Patti has been using her voice for advocacy for years, now it is on a much bigger scale.
Even though her reign has just begun, she already has a full schedule. Because Patti has a passion for music, one of the first appearances that she wanted to make was at a songwriting session at the Parters for Youth with Disabilities meeting. Patti helped the group write a song solely from their own lyrics. What was once thought of as disability became ability in their songwriting session. Knowing that music should be experienced by everyone, one of Patti’s goals this year is to advocate for more accessibility in the entertainment industry for both spectators and performers.
Patti will soon be appearing on Ablevision, a television and media program produced entirely by people with disabilities; at the Massachusetts Hospital School graduation; the SMA Walk & Roll; the Equal Opportunities Career Day; and that’s just in May! As for experiences that she hopes to have this year, the top of that list centers around music. She submitted an audition CD to sing the National Anthem for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park for the Disability Awareness Day this summer. Ultimately, though, Patti hopes to help promote more overall opportunities for people with disabilities. She said that she has seen many people get frustrated at the lack of opportunities for people with disabilities, and she wants that to change both by advocating for change in overall society and by encouraging others with disabilities to keep living life to the fullest. “People give up. Don’t give up. I’m still going. Life’s not over,” said Patti.
Later this summer, Patti will advance on to the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. She is excited to meet other women with disabilities from across the country, and she has her eyes set on the crown. “I really want to win the title,” she said with confidence. “It’s a second chance to show my abilities to an even wider audience.” Patti knows that she has a lot to do in preparation for the big stage of Ms. Wheelchair America. In addition to building her experiences, she’ll also have to raise money for the entry fee and travel.
With the grace with which Patti carries herself, her positive attitude and determination when it comes to reaching her goals, those around Patti often refer to her as an inspiration. Patti is quick to say that she is simply just living life the best way she knows how. There are times, however, when those compliments come in handy, as Patti admits, “No matter how well adjusted you are, there are those days when having a disability gets you down. But you can’t stay down. I store those compliments up for a rainy day and keep on going,” she said.
With the way that the last few months have gone for Patti, it’s safe to say that those rainy days will be few and far between and that she’ll have plenty of inspiration to get through them.
To follow Patti’s progress or to learn more about the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Pageant, visit www.mswheelchairmass.org. To check out Patti’s band OLYPSYS, visit www.facebook.com/olypsys and www.reverbnation.com/olypsys.
Columnist Amy Saffell lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group.