Like most new moms, Alana Nichols knows all about feeling wildly in love and exhausted all at the same time. But there’s a difference between Nichols and many new moms: her motherhood journey includes a wheelchair.
Nichols broke her back on a rock while doing a snowboarding trick when she was 17 years old; she was paralyzed from the waist down. Now 36 and the mom of a 7-month-old baby boy named Gunnar, Nichols has lived more of her life with a wheelchair than without, and she’s learned how to reinvent herself: she’s a multi-sport athlete and the first female U.S. Paralympian to win gold medals at Summer Games (for wheelchair basketball) and Winter Games (for alpine skiing). On top of that, she recently was named president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Nichols sees herself as an ordinary mom with an extraordinary life. And most of the time, she doesn’t see herself as an inspiration.
“If I’m out just buying groceries, I hardly think that’s inspiring,” Nichols told TODAY Parents. “But if people think I’m an inspiration for getting back up after getting knocked down and doing something remarkable — like going 70 mph down a mountain — that feels good. If people are encouraged by me as a mom with a disability, that’s OK too.”
Mom life presents all the typical challenges for Nichols: like many parents, she wishes her son would sleep through the night and save his worst diaper mishaps for times when she isn’t trying to rush out the door. It’s not easy for anyone to be a parent, Nichols noted, but being a mom in a wheelchair does present special challenges. She shared seven things she wishes people knew about life on wheels:
1. Don’t pity parents in wheelchairs.
“I really love my life,” Nichols said. “Breaking my back at 17 was devastating, but it was one of the most important things that happened in my life. The byproducts of becoming disabled and finding myself again as an athlete opened up so many doors. I traveled the world and competed with three sports, and that’s an opportunity a lot of people don’t get. Now, I get to inspire people and share this positive message of possibility and mobility and thinking differently about people with disabilities.”
2. It’s a great time to be alive.
“If you are disabled, you’ll find more and more companies are creating opportunities for disabled people and we can live these incredible lives,” Nichols said. “Even thinking about walking someday because of medical science or technology is exciting.”
3. Women with disabilities can have children.
A lot of people are surprised that she can be a mom, Nichols said. “The misconception is that a woman with a disability can’t have children or carry them or deliver naturally. People just assume that’s not part of your life; I get that a lot.”
4. Trust parents in wheelchairs to know if and when they need help.
There is a tendency to think that people who are disabled always need help from able-bodied people. While that’s true in some cases, Nichols said, there are a lot of things she wouldn’t attempt to do if she didn’t already know her capabilities. “It’s offensive to me when people ask me if I need help and I say no, and then they ask again,” Nichols said. “It feels as if they don’t trust me or they’re questioning my abilities. I know it’s hard for able-bodied people to understand what we’re capable of, but it’s not hard to trust me. I know what I can do.”
5. Let kids ask questions.
Nichols loves it when children ask about her wheelchair, and she prefers that parents don’t grab their kids’ arms and tell them to be quiet when they ask questions. “That connotes negativity and makes the child fearful of disability,” she said. “I love when they ask; I tell them I broke my back snowboarding and have a spinal cord injury that makes my legs not work. It’s hard for kids to understand sometimes, but many of them are interested in the wheels and I let them touch the chair. I want them to feel that it’s OK and not scary.”
6. The independence that comes from driving is hugely important.
“I have my mobility challenges, that’s for sure,” Nichols said. “But one thing that gives me freedom is the ability to drive.” Nichols drives a minivan, which makes it possible for her to put her child in the car, stow her wheelchair and close the doors with a tap of a button. “I wouldn’t go as many places if I didn’t have such an accessible vehicle,” said Nichols, a Team Toyota athlete. “I can do more things because of that.”
7. Planning ahead is important.
When Nichols was pregnant, she had to start thinking ahead logistically. For instance, she made her kitchen sink accessible so she could bathe her child in the sink. "But if you go down a rabbit hole of 'how am I going to do this?' you get stuck there," Nichols said. "As a mom, there is so much you don’t know anyway. So try new things. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Count your blessings and focus on the positive."