These days, Barb Zablotney’s friends call her the Rolling Rainbow because of her positive attitude and the bright colors that adorn her body and chair — but the nickname wouldn’t have worked a few years ago. Before she was a fierce disability advocate, Zablotney waged a 10-year-long battle with depression.
Through the Clouds
There was a time when Zablotney, 33, thought wheelchair users were full of crap.
The T10 paraplegic from outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania, believed there was no way any wheelchair user could be happy. Her grandfather had a spinal cord injury and was a grumpy old man — and Zablotney herself didn’t have much reason for joy either. Only a year after the car accident that caused her SCI, her mother died. Then, soon after, she separated from her fiancé.
“In doing that, I was giving up my life in Scranton, knowing I’d have to move back home, four hours away. I probably wouldn’t see my friends. I wouldn’t be able to finish school there. And I would have to leave my job. So severing that tie wasn’t just severing the tie of that relationship, but severing the tie of my life there,” says Zablotney.
That realization hit hard and spurred on the depression that saw her put on 100 pounds and had her praying to die. The turning point came when doctors informed her that she was too heavy for surgery to fix her ongoing bladder and bowel issues. They set her up with a food addiction counsellor and a trainer who would adapt a workout to her abilities. It took three years, but eventually she lost the extra weight.
“I was so depressed that I didn’t realize I was depressed. It was just everyday life and I was probably depressed even before my injury. I didn’t realize that’s what it was until one day [it lifted and] I was like, ‘Wow is this how a normal person feels?’” she says.
Before, she didn’t plan for the future because she didn’t see the point. But as she lost weight and got more involved in her community, she started seeing a path forward for herself. Still, as she went out in public again, she dealt with people saying the most ignorant things about her disability.
“I thought, man, I wish I had a platform where I could have my voice heard louder, but all I have is a Facebook page and an Instagram account, so I don’t know what to do,” she remembers.
Then a family friend recommended she compete for Miss Wheelchair Pennsylvania, and on March 3, 2018, this tattooed pageant contestant was crowned. Winning gave her the advocacy platform she sought, and she’s still running with it to this day.
“For some reason, when you have a sparkly thing on your head and a sash over your shoulder, people listen to you all of the sudden,” says Zablotney. “It literally changed my life, giving me direction, purpose and a community I never thought I needed.”
She’s appeared in Johnstown’s paper, The Tribune-Democrat, countless times. Last October, the paper ran a featured article about the day she convinced the mayor and city planners to use wheelchairs for a downtown excursion. With actions like these, she showcases wheelchair users as regular people of all shapes, sizes and ages — and this leads to real improvements to accessibility in her region.
A former teacher invited her to present to classrooms about driving safety and the impact of not wearing her seat belt. In her hands, it became a lesson in perseverance.
“I think these teens see me and go, ‘It’s OK if I have depression. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me,’ and I think it’s helping them realize the stigma around depression should be lifted. Lots of people struggle with it — it makes you human and it’s OK to talk about it, because if you need help, you should look for help.”
Reading the Rainbow
Zablotney’s signature look is dominated by her bright and colorful tattoos. The ink was a motivator and helped her realize there were brighter days ahead.
I have a full-sleeve of Lisa Frank designs on my right arm done by a fourth-place finisher on the show Ink Master, and my left arm has a half-sleeve of meaningful things in my life. It has a memorial for my mom, a memorial for her best friend who is like a second mother to me, and the date of my accident along with the mile marker and a dead tree signifying the tree that I hit. Then I had to get tattoos commemorating my family still living, and I added the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania crown.
The Lisa Frank sleeve is full of bright, colorful and cute things, so how can you look at your arm and not smile when you see something that cute and colorful looking back at you?
When you have depression, you feel so numb sometimes that you just want to feel something, which is why a lot of people who have depression get tattoos. Mine tell a story of where I was in my life at that time.
I think of them as art and not something people should judge instantly when they see someone who has them. In a weird way, my Lisa Frank sleeve started helping me get out of depression because I wanted my attitude to match my sleeve and there were no colorful clothes out there for fat people. That was a huge motivation to lose weight. My brother said that as soon as I could fit into pants that were colorful and fun, he saw a noticeable change in my demeanor.”
Advice You’d Give Yourself Immediately Post-Injury:
Don’t focus on the magical cure of walking again. Realize there’s more to life with an injury, and talk to other wheelchair users.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I wanted to be more involved in my community. Karen Roy, then the reigning Miss Wheelchair America 2019, encouraged me to start my own chapter in South Central Pennsylvania.