More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Wheelchair pageant win helps teacher advocate for self, others

Monday, October 22, 2001

"You're pretty for being a girl in a wheelchair."

The words were meant to be a compliment, but Shani McLoyd, 24, who has used a wheelchair for the past year due to multiple sclerosis, didn't see it that way.

She was livid. And so, at a friend's suggestion, she entered a pageant for women who use wheelchairs. That's how this 1995 graduate of Pioneer High School, who was diagnosed with MS at the age of 15, became Ms. Wheelchair Michigan.

"I was interested in advocacy work, and I also wanted to meet other individuals with disabilities around the same age," said McLoyd. "I felt pretty isolated because I think a lot of the disability community focuses on older generations."

McLoyd didn't know a thing about MS when she was diagnosed.

"Shani was an old spirit when she was born, a leader of women and men," said her mother, Sylvia Jones, a professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan University. "She had the typical adolescent reaction: She became angry at her parents. I'll never forget she slammed the door and went into her room and wouldn't let either of us in. She was crying upstairs and I was crying downstairs and it was just heartbreaking."

"I was 15 years old and read that it could kill me," McLoyd recalled. "I was doing sports, doing 15-year-old things, so it was pretty bad."

McLoyd's outlook has changed considerably. "About once every two or three months we have a pity party," said her mother. "And then when it's over, we go get groceries."

She has a normal life expectancy, but there are no guarantees of what her health will be like from one day to the next. There's no cure for MS; a person with MS typically experiences exacerbations, which are periods of worsening symptoms, and remissions, with each exacerbation causing more damage to the central nervous system. McLoyd's body is not as strong as it was when she was 15, but she's in remission now and able to use a walker more often than her chair.

McLoyd loves her job as a permanent substitute math teacher of middle and high school students at Ann Arbor's Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, where she's invited students to sit in her wheelchair to help them feel more comfortable with it.

Principal Joe Dulin said McLoyd is the kind of young woman he'd want for his own daughter, and said she's known at school for her bubbly personality. "She has a handicap, but you'd never know it," he said. "I'm impressed, and I know a lot of it comes from that Spelman background."

After graduating from Pioneer High, McLoyd went on to Spelman College in Atlanta, where she majored in sociology. Despite some scary episodes, she was able to make it with help from friends until a major exacerbation last year which landed her in a wheelchair, unable to work for most of last year.

When she could not live alone, she moved home with her mother in Ann Arbor. McLoyd is interested in going into therapy or counseling to work with people with disabilities and is now enrolled in five classes at Eastern Michigan University's School of Social Work.

As Ms. Wheelchair Michigan, McLoyd wants to publicize the Medicaid Buy-In Bill, which would help people with disabilities keep Medicaid while still working.

McLoyd met her boyfriend at the Center for Independent Living in Ann Arbor. He, too, is an African American who uses a wheelchair, and they hope to start a support group for young African Americans with disabilities who are interested in changing society. "I think we're all given things in our lives for a reason," said McLoyd. "We may not know what that reason is, but we need to try to make the best of it. In a way, I kind of think of MS as a blessing. I now see the world very differently and can appreciate the small things. Because, honestly, I never know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Call Jo Collins Mathis at (734) 994-6849.

Copyright 2001 Michigan Live Inc