Founder, People on Wheels Inc.
In 1970 Jim and Nancy Cotterill honeymooned on Mackinac Island. Over the years they revisited the island often, adding to their fond memories. But a family vacation there in 2001 turned into a nightmare. While Jim was riding his bicycle one evening, the path abruptly ended and he fell three feet, catapulting over his handlebars and breaking his neck in two places.
“The doctors told Nancy that I might never walk again,” he said. “As she desperately sought information regarding what life might be like for our family if I were to spend the remainder of my life confined to a wheelchair, she constantly expressed disappointment” at the lack of information available.
Realizing that the Cotterills were just one of thousands of families who face this uncertainty every year, Nancy decided to do something about it.
Fortunately Jim regained use of his legs and arms. But Nancy, 61, never forgot the pain and frustration they experienced. “There was no good community for people in wheelchairs,” she said. “There was no place where they could see what the issues were.”
And there were plenty of issues—pressure sores, bladder issues, respiratory problems and weight issues related to sitting in a wheelchair all day. There were also regulations and logistics to figure out.
Given her background as an entrepreneur and journalist (she and Jim were part of the group that founded Indianapolis Business Journal) and the fact that her target audience uses computers to keep in touch with the world, creating an Internet community was a natural solution.
By 2005, Cotterill had People on Wheels (peopleonwheels.org), a not-for-profit information clearinghouse, up and running, assisted by a $15,000 grant from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. Today the site is available to serve the more than six million users of wheelchairs in America, their caregivers and families by providing information on the latest research, regulations, sports and special events and daily living tips.
“You create a community through a publication, and I knew that we could do that through People on Wheels,” Cotterill said. “The daily news isn’t edited for someone who doesn’t fit the prototype of a functioning, capable human being. People on Wheels is.”
Initially Cotterill spent 35 hours every week on the site. Hiring an editor freed her to devote time to her job as a Realtor. Now she puts in 15 hours a week, ramping up to 30 hours a week when she’s organizing the Ms. Wheelchair contest that takes place every March.
Starr Velez, a wheelchair veteran of more than 10 years, has been first runner-up in the contest three times. She is now on the staff of People on Wheels and has nothing but praise for Cotterill. “I have never met a woman who has done so much for a community whose voice is rarely heard,” she said. “The galas she helps put together are not only beautiful but you can actually feel the sense of family. She has this impeccable way of stirring up emotions inside of people that makes them realize that this is not just about a person in a wheelchair. She’s just amazing.”
Cotterill feels blessed to be able to make the lives of so many people easier. “Sometimes I’m able to get them a wheelchair,” she said. “Sometimes I put information up on the website about accessible vacations in Tanzania. It’s huge the number of people you can touch on the Internet.”