Meet Meg Johnson, a Beloved Speaker, Author, and Director of the Ms. Wheelchair Utah Pageant. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Meg Johnson’s background, let me fill you in: not only is she a well-respected author and motivational speaker, but also the founder of the Princess Pageant, a nonprofit pageant for little girls in wheelchairs. If any of you have heard Meg speak, read her blog, attended a Ms. Wheelchair Utah event, or even simply typed her name into a Google search bar, I’m sure you understand what a force of light and goodness she is in this world of uncertainty. I find each of her accomplishments remarkable on their own, but I am truly in awe of her story considering what she overcame following a life-changing accident 16 years ago.
I’m sure you can relate to me when I say that this year of COVID-19 has led me to relish connections I make with other people even if it’s virtually or over the internet. There are many things I will never forget about 2020, but one of them is the enormous honor it has been to feature Meg who is a hero of mine. While there’s nothing I’d love more than to sit down and meet her in person, I was thrilled to learn more about her remotely as we communicated from the safety of our own homes.
Let’s rewind to Meg’s life in March 2004 when she was an active young college student passionate about ballroom dancing and party planning. Since she had never been to Southern Utah, she took a weekend trip with her boyfriend to explore the unique red-rock landscape, not knowing that her life would never be the same again.
As Meg was jumping from boulder to boulder, she inadvertently jumped off a 40 foot cliff and broke both of her femurs, wrists, collarbone, and several bones in her neck making her a C-7 quadriplegic.
It wasn’t until she was in rehab that she realized her hands were also paralyzed. She’d been on a ventilator for over three months and thought she was just too tired to move her hands. Understandably, this was a tough blow. She explains, “If I’d broken one bone lower on my neck I’d have use of my hands. But if I’d broken one bone higher, I wouldn’t be able to use my triceps.”
What Came Next
The first time I heard her story, I quickly realized that Meg and I have something in common: neither of us likes to sit still for very long. I personally like to be constantly involved in satisfying work and Meg is the same way. Although she now found herself paralyzed from the chest down and couldn’t use her hands, she didn’t let that slow her down at all.
In his well-known book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey discusses this trait. He talks about how successful people focus on things they can change rather than situations out of their control. I believe this is how Meg became such a powerful, effective woman: she put her energy into encouraging others rather than wallowing in her newfound physical limitations.
Shortly after an extended hospital stay to treat her broken limbs, Meg got to work. First, she volunteered at a local elementary school to listen to second-grade children read. I can just imagine how much Meg’s beautiful, vibrant energy and smile lifted those sweet children who were learning to read. I bet it boosted their confidence to feel her support and love.
Although her studies at Weber State University were interrupted by the tragic accident, she finished her degree after she recovered. She earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in Communications and a minor in English. Meg even interned at Walt Disney World during her college experience!
She was new to a wheelchair, but Meg decided to explore activities unique to that circumstance and started playing wheelchair rugby, or Murderball, as a member of the Utah Scorpions. It didn’t end up suiting her and according to her website she longed for “something – anything – girly … which isn’t really a part of the wheelchair world.” Meg took matters into her own hands and learned about the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. Although she had never participated in pageants before being paralyzed, Meg was enthusiastic to get involved.
Ms. Wheelchair Pageants
A little over a year after her accident, Meg represented the state of Utah in a national competition in New York. As an independent delegate she won the Spirit Award! Not long after her return home Meg founded a Ms. Wheelchair chapter in Utah with her boyfriend, Whit Johnson. (Spoiler alert: he is now her husband!) With Whit, she raised money to pay for the Utah pageant winner to compete nationally. The first pageant was very successful; many contestants stepped forward and an enormous audience came to watch the first pageant.
Her efforts truly enhanced the lives of other quadriplegics in her home state. Participants were judged on various accomplishments they had achieved since becoming disabled, whether they were academic, vocational, or personal. Judges also took note of their demeanor and poise. Hence the girls came to see their beauty, purpose, and potential by competing in the pageant.
The Ms. Wheelchair Utah Pageant ran from 2006-2018 but the Princess Pageant and Teen Spokes programs continue. The Princess Pageant consists of both a tea party and pageant. At the tea party all sorts of princesses join the participants as they eat and dance together. A week later, each participant showcases her skills onstage in front of family and friends. The event is complete with tiaras, flowers, and awards – truly a magical night for these young girls.
Meg has also facilitated the Teen Spokes program in which older girls regularly meet together to hear success stories from adult women in wheelchairs. It has proven to be a valuable way to introduce girls in wheelchairs to role models who have found ways to be happy and satisfied in their situations.
An Impactful Speaker
Not long after her accident, Meg was asked to speak about her experience at a conference. This would become the first of many speaking engagements for her. She has experienced significant success in this field since then, speaking all over the country and even internationally to share her message of empowerment and love. I’ve personally heard her speak and can say that the audience can’t help but nod along, laugh out loud, and take notes on Meg’s wise insights.
In fact, she even received the Athena Leadership Award for her tremendous speaking abilities in 2012. The Athena Leadership Award recognized women leaders and Meg got it when she was 30 years old in its 30th year!
She is also a founding partner for Jumping Turtle and Our Turtle House. If you haven’t done so already, you should check out this digital collection of talks, podcasts, videos, and articles from inspiring people like Meg.
Through her spoken and written words, Meg empowers people of all abilities. Her poignant motto is unforgettable: When life gets too hard to stand, just keep on rollin’! During our exchange I noticed the tag at the bottom of her emails is “Keep on rollin’!” What a succinct way to capture what she stands for, I love it!
Four years after Meg fell off the cliff, she married Whit Johnson in Salt Lake City, Utah. Although he wasn’t the boyfriend she was with at the time of her accident, they had known each other well before she became paralyzed.
The couple has built a beautiful family together over the years. Meg gave birth to her first daughter when she was 32 and her second daughter 3 years later. She says that they have “plenty of tea parties” and Monday night dance parties. Everyone takes turns choosing the songs and they dance as a family. These are special times for Meg, who really misses her days competitively dancing but is happy to show her girls that she hasn’t let her injury stop her from doing what she loves.
Although Meg is known for her optimism and admired for her strength, she opened up about the pain she experiences when she thinks about the things she can’t do with her children, such as dancing. Sometimes she feels bad that she misses out on “fun things that other moms get to do.” For instance, her oldest daughter sleeps on the top bunk and Meg says, “The best I can do is hold her hand when I sing to her at night. It hurts.”
I was floored by what Meg told me about her daughters. She said, “My disability makes room for my kids’ abilities.” How fascinating is that? In fact, her oldest daughter could do full loads of laundry and buckle herself in and out of a car seat when she was only 2 years old! Today she is 7 and recently mixed, baked, frosted, and decorated cookies entirely by herself, with mom’s supervision of course.
Her Greatest Accomplishments
Meg is the first to say how fortunate she has been to take the stage and speak in front of thousands of people. Sometimes she even elicits standing ovations, which has to be satisfying. Despite that, she says that “no applause can compete with the feeling that comes when my daughter brings me every flower from my front garden all stuffed into a plastic cup.” I consider that anecdote telling of the type of mother Meg is to her daughters and I’m adding it to the list of reasons I’m impressed with Meg.
In addition to her professional and mothering endeavors, Meg has experienced significant accomplishments on a physical level. On Meg’s Facebook page you can watch a collection of videos showing how she accomplishes tasks that you wouldn’t think would be possible for a quadriplegic. For instance, she demonstrates how she vacuums, makes waffles, irons shirts, pushes a wheelchair while hugging her daughter, opens a bar of soap, reaches something up high, plugs something into an outlet, and even pours hot chocolate with paralyzed hands. But if you ask her what accomplishment she is most proud of, she’ll say it is changing diapers. Incredibly, she learned to change a diaper without using her teeth, hands, or feet! If you ask me that is quite the feat.
Curious about how she figured out how to do all of these tasks, I asked her if she had a trick. Meg kindly explained that during therapy she realized her “hands didn’t move like everyone else’s did, but they still worked just fine.” Since she can’t use the tips of her fingers like most of us do, she utilizes the back of her hand. And get this: she can even French braid her daughter’s hair!
What stuck with me the most during my virtual conversations with Meg was what she said next: “Everything seems impossible before you try. But if you don’t try, you’ll never be able to see that impossible just means more effort.” She truly is an example of determination and creativity!
Meg’s Advice for Others Mothers
The inspiring thing about Meg is that she has found ways to be grateful, serve, and love despite her physical challenges. She is a reminder to all those around her that there is always a choice to be happy. While I feel that her legacy is the way she’s chosen to live her life, she also has practical tips to share.
Many of us can relate to pursuing careers while pursuing our children just like Meg. She says, “I thought I’d give up speaking, writing, and business when I became a mom, but I still do everything I did before I became a mom.” I was interested in how she did that and found myself in agreement with her methods. Here’s what she had to say: “I fight to be with my kids each day. I wake up extra early and go to bed late and work when they’re napping so that I can do what I need to do for my jobs and the community, but it seldom interferes with who I am as a mom.” As a matter of fact, Meg rejects the idea of “balance” when it comes to being a working mom and rather asserts that if women make family a priority then everything will fall into place.
You might be surprised to hear this, but Meg says she “didn’t mean to become successful.” She claims, “I was just doing what I thought I could and should be doing. I think our purpose in life is discovered when we take our trials and our strengths and find someone to serve with them – not in spite of them.” You can see why I am in awe of how masterfully she arranges words in such memorable ways. I may not be able to say it as eloquently as she does, but I agree that our trials provide unique perspectives and opportunities to better serve others.
When asked about some of her favorite “can’t do without items,” Meg responded, “I absolutely love having fire in my home. I light a candle every day almost. It just makes my home feel warm.” Apparently she often receives candles for speaking since she loves a nice-smelling house.
Also, she is a makeup enthusiast. After all, the first thing she relearned how to do after eating was applying foundation. I smiled when she told me that and followed up with, “We all have our priorities!” Today she still does all of her own makeup!
As an English minor, she is also a reader and has several recommendations. She loves Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and all the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.
Learning from Meg
I asked Meg who she most admires and was struck by her response. She told me that she once showed up unannounced to a neighbor’s house early in the morning, around 9am. This neighbor had just taken a strawberry rhubarb pie out of her oven which was made completely by scratch. Apparently the woman had picked the strawberries and rhubarb from her own garden. Meg was amazed with this woman with this and said of her, “She is kind and never talks badly about anyone or anything. She’s humble. She serves. She laughs a lot. When I think of being a better woman, I think of her.”
Hearing this made me realize that we can all do what Meg’s neighbor did: use our talents, whether it be making a pie from scratch or raising our voices or planting beautiful gardens, to lift others. I take great hope in the fact that such a well-recognized woman such as Meg Johnson says that she most admires a modest, regular woman like me. It’s a reminder that we can influence others even if we don’t ever stand in front of an audience or receive awards.
During this COVID era we may feel like our ability to spread goodness is diminished, but examining Meg’s life makes me think that clearly that isn’t the case. If I’m being honest, sometimes I feel that I’m unable to do everything I want to, a feeling which I’m sure Meg has had on a regular basis since her paralysis. She even says (on her website), “I am the one in the wheelchair, but I am not the only one who knows what it feels like when this life gets too hard to stand. All of us have disabilities. And the worst ones don’t even affect you on the outside, they are the ones who paralyze you inside – socially, spiritually, emotionally, mentally…Finding the strength to put one foot in front of the other is a trial for us all, even if there’s nothing wrong with your feet. And we all need a little help to keep on rollin.”
I’m going to learn from Meg and refuse to let my life be dictated by circumstances I can’t control. I’m going to choose to find ways to serve others, laugh, and be grateful in Meg’s honor. Because she has taught us that love and joy are always options, regardless of what’s going on in our lives!
To Learn More About Meg
Let’s be honest: we all could use a little lift these days. So go explore Meg’s work – you’ll be glad you did! If you’d like to learn more about her and keep up with her work, I highly recommend checking out her website. You’ll find her books, CDs, videos, and live presentations there. You can even listen to her talks for free on her app found at www.ourturtlehouse.com. And if you want to watch something inspiring, you need to see Falling Up, a documentary showcasing how Meg has faced her challenges with optimism.