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One day when Kristen Parisi was 5 years old, she was in the car with her sister and a cousin, about a mile from their home in Utica, N.Y. Her mother was driving. There was an accident, a bad one. A long hospital stay was followed by years of rehab. The prognosis was definitive. She would never walk again.
Today, 18 years later, she plays the oboe, the guitar and piano, is entering her senior year at UMass Lowell as a music-education major, and recently bested five other contestants to represent the state of Massachusetts in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, which will award its crown from about 30 competitors representing 25 states in Rockville, Md. on July 26.
“There is life after rehab,” Parisi told a reporter in June, by way of explaining why she wanted to leverage her celebrity into raising the national consciousness about those with disabilities. “We’re not less intelligent [than able-bodied people]. We go out with our friends in weekends. We get married. We have kids.”
A 23-year-old Dracut resident who transferred here from college in her home state of New York because, she says, “I love Lowell, I love Massachusetts and New England, I will probably never leave,” Parisi looks forward to a career teaching music to special-needs students. She aspires, she says, “to be a mentor to people who are newly disabled, so they can see that those with disabilities can do anything that anyone else can.”
“I will be going [to the pageant] not only representing the state of Massachusetts, but also the University,” she wrote in an email to Chancellor Marty Meehan this spring after meeting him at the concert for his inaugural, where she was among the musicians. “UMass Lowell has been a great help to me in furthering my education. I hope to help in the next year to show that the University is a very good campus for the disabled.”