We Have a Voice…It Just Needs To Be Louder!

Photo of Karen Roy
Photo of Karen Roy
Anticipating a milestone birthday and facing an empty nest, Karen Roy decided to “up” her game…her advocacy game. “It is amazing to me how things came together,” the reigning Ms. Wheelchair America said. “Everything had to fall into place in a certain way for me to get involved in the Ms. Wheelchair competition. I moved from being a social worker to working in sales with Numotion, a wheelchair and mobility company. My youngest child was starting college. This along with some other changes in my life brought me to this perfect coming together of events for me to increase my advocacy efforts.”

Karen admits that she was surprised that at age 50 she decided to put herself “out there” in such a public way. “This was the first time in my life when I could 100% devote myself to the time needed for the travel and the advocacy work that the title deserves.”

The Louisiana native has lived her life in a wheelchair for 31 years. “My spinal cord injury is the result of being the victim of a random armed robbery. I was a sophomore in college and hadn’t decided on a focus for my education; however, after the shooting I knew I would pursue a career that would allow me to help others with disabilities. That’s when I decided to earn a degree in Psychology,” Karen said. “And, I was determined to live as ‘normal’ a life as possible. I got married and had my daughter, Caroline after graduation from LSU with my undergraduate degree. I began graduate school when she was 9 months and I finished when she was almost 3 years old. My two boys were born after that.” Even though Karen’s children are now living on their own they remain an important part of her life. “Caroline is 24, Austin is 21 and Joseph is 18. I spend time with my kids whenever possible,” Karen said. “Two of them are enrolled at Louisiana State University where I earned both of my degrees, so we are always cheering for my Tigers! I love LSU football and go to as many games as I can.”

Until 2015 Karen was a Social Worker working with patients in physical rehabilitation hospitals in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I realize now that choosing a career that offered me an opportunity to help others was a way of processing the grief of losing the use of my legs,” Karen said. “There are parallels between my decision then, at age 19 and my choice to become a more active advocate at age 50. Almost 3 years ago, I experienced the accidental death of my husband and I believe I chose a similar path to help me through the grieving process. It was a powerful healing instrument for both experiences to transition to something that gave me purpose and joy. When you can help someone else through a difficult experience, that takes your mind off whatever you are personally experiencing. Being Ms. Wheelchair America is 100% about advocacy efforts. It is another way for me to focus on what I can do to help others rather than focusing on myself. Everyone grieves differently. I believe my best coping mechanism is helping others.”

“I began at Numotion on the complex rehab side of the business and now I have moved to the medical supply side. I cover Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and oversee urology and ostomy, wound and wound care supplies for the population that we serve. Our goal at Numotion is to make life easier for those that we serve and many of our clients that need custom wheelchairs also need these supplies. Even as a social worker I often provided bowel and bladder education to patients and staff. I love it!” “My experience in the Ms. Wheelchair competition has opened many doors to allow the opportunity for me to speak to groups that I would not have otherwise had,” Karen said. “I’m looking forward to interacting with lawmakers, insurance companies, medical professionals and the disabled community. We’re fighting the fight. We have a voice, but it needs to be louder!” Karen especially wants more interaction with the medical community. “I’ve been talking for years with my doctors as well as those I’ve worked with and, frankly, have not always been taken seriously when I asked why we continue to fix the broken-down bodies of people who sit in wheelchairs all day when other options exist?” The options Karen is referring to include standing devices and functional electrical stimulation both of which she credits for her years of wheelchair use with no pressure wounds, contracture or other medical problems. “This is important. This greatly impacts the quality of life and health of those in wheelchairs. Continuing to have individuals who are septic because of a pressure wound is not OK,” Karen said. “My first standing device was a simple reciprocating brace. I always advise that if that is all you can get your hands on, then do it. Stand by any means possible and then fight for the rest.” Now Karen uses a standing robotic device and a functional electrical stimulation bicycle. “I have a standing desk at home and use my standing device while I do my emails and telephone calls. I’ve tried to build what would be considered physical therapy into my lifestyle.”

As with anyone, maintaining healthy habits can be a challenge with Karen’s job responsibilities as well as serving as Ms. Wheelchair America. “Helping people and being a voice for those with disabilities is the positive side of my life,” Karen said. “The difficult part is: I do have a disability. I’m in a wheelchair. I keep preaching about exercising and I’ve been out on the road constantly. It would be terrible if I’m being outspoken about taking care of yourself and then I end up with a wound. I have to try to balance this!”

From the very beginning of Karen’s life with a disability she was shown an impressive example of advocacy through the dedication and action of her parents, Alan and Carlyn Fernbaugh. “Parents will try to do anything to make things better, but my father especially had a personality that was going to fight to keep his daughter healthy and happy. Perhaps I wouldn’t walk again but at least my parents were going to do everything possible to help me be the best I could be. No one wanted to go up against my dad!” Karen said. “His example of persistence has helped me be successful despite my disability and gave me my fight going forward. I don’t necessarily take ‘no’ for an answer just because someone says so.”

Another personal, more recent advocate and positive example for Karen is her boyfriend, Roy Harris. “Roy and I went to high school together and a while back became reacquainted at a wedding,” Karen said. “We went to a couple of dances together when we were in the 10th grade. He loves to tell people that he is one of the only guys who danced with me when I could stand and now he dances with me again in my standing robotic device.” Roy has been a tremendous support to Karen especially as she fulfills her responsibilities of Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana and America. “I’m not sure I would have won either without his help. Roy has been a driving force with fundraising. He helps me keep up with my event schedule and when I’m too tired to drive, he does that too. Roy also shares my dedication to promoting the Ms. Wheelchair organization.”

Ms. Wheelchair America (www.mswheelchairamerica.org) is a non-profit program that provides an opportunity of achievement for women who happen to be wheelchair users to successfully educate and advocate for those living with disabilities. Ms. Wheelchair America is not a contest to select the most attractive individual. It is instead a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities. The program currently includes 30 states and the District of Columbia. Karen is helping the organization reach representation in all 50 states in time to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022.

“I pursued the Ms. Wheelchair ‘crown’ because I had a message, not the other way around. The fun, somewhat glamorous experience of the competition is, as we say in Louisiana, lagniappe. That’s French for ‘a little something extra.’ Actually, I’ve have been saying the same thing for 31 years but until I had a tiara on my head I don’t feel as though people listened!”

You may contact Karen at Karen Roy>

Karen is a consumer advocate and Ms. Wheelchair America who works for Numotion in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. See page

View All Profiles