By Beth Lawrence
Wanda Mills has spent her entire life in a wheelchair. Though it holds her body, the chair does not contain her will and her spirit.
Mills uses that resolve to advocate for the disabled in Jackson County.
“Throughout my life whatever I wanted to do, people have told me, ‘You’re handicapped, you can’t do that,” she said. “In a lot of cases, those of us with a handicap are told what we want instead of being asked what we want. I have always wanted to use both my writings and public speaking to advocate and educate the world that our disability is not who we are.”
Mills, 71, is a Jackson County native from the Ochre Hill community.
She was born with cerebral palsy, a condition affecting muscle tone, posture and mobility. Mills has never let that diagnosis limit her, and she wants to make sure that others know there is more to differently abled people than their conditions. Despite a speech impediment and body movements that are not fluid, Mills says she is as “normal” as the rest of the world.
“Our hopes, dreams, goals and passions define who we are as they do anyone,” she said. “I was fortunate to be part of the Partners in Policymaking class in Raleigh. This class taught us how to advocate as well as be a public speaker.”
Since the 2017 class, Mills has spoken to classes in public schools and colleges.
She also founded the advocacy group Rolling Into the Future. Her target audience is parents, teachers, caregivers, churches and anyone in the general public willing to listen.
Those with a physical or mental limitations are often assessed on what they cannot do, Mills said. They are not given room to explore their abilities and not allowed to discover what they can do or test their boundaries.
“To me, this is robbing the handicapped person of what they might be able to build on or accomplish and build on,” she said. “Sometimes I have to find a different way to do things. It’s no crime to say, ‘I just can’t do that.’ But I believe, at least for me, it’s terribly wrong not to try.”
Perhaps Mills’ determination comes from her early life.
The ability to make things happen her own way first manifest itself in her determination to get an education.
Mills attended a “hospital/school” in Asheville. Schools in the 1950s did not accommodate differently abled children. The school required children to board there, but Mills was allowed to come home on weekends.
Mills was not happy with the situation and by the fourth grade had convinced her parents, Joe and Willa Mae, to let her come home for good. From there, Mills became a homeschool student borrowing textbooks from Scotts Creek Elementary School. She earned her high school diploma from a correspondence school.
Her next step was college though it was greatly delayed due to her mother’s overprotective nature.
Willa Mae Mills passed away when Wanda was 26, and Wanda Mills began to take control of her life as much as possible.
In 1978 Mills earned an Early Childhood Specialists degree from Southwestern Community College.
“I really wanted to work in a daycare, however, because of my disabilities I was not permitted to work with children,” Mills said. “I was really hurt. What hurt most was they said the children might talk the way I do.”
Mills did not let that experience stop her from finding work. She took clerical jobs.
Her lifelong love of books paired with her clerical skills has become another avenue for Mills’ advocacy.
She wrote three chapbooks, “Look at Me, “Rolling On,” and Keep Rolling.” The books showcase her poetry and vignettes of her life, some detailing both her struggles and achievements.
The booklets are available at City Lights Bookstore.
For information on Mills and her advocacy, visit rollingintothefuture.com.