Trailblazing nurse joins Alaska’s Disability Pride Celebration


Shane Ersland


The Alaska Disability Pride Celebration got underway this week with a slate of events celebrating Alaskans with disabilities.


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Live events were held in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Kenai will hold an in-person event on Saturday. A virtual event was held on Tuesday, which featured a guest celebrity.

Andrea Dalzell joined Alaskans virtually for the celebration. Dalzell was diagnosed with transverse myelitis when she was 5, and was using a wheelchair by age 12. She faced many challenges, and found her transition from high school to college to be difficult due to a lack of resources.

“There’s a gap between high school and college,” Dalzell said. “You’re trying to rely on yourself. It doesn’t transition well when you have a disability sometimes. I wanted to do all the STEM classes, and nothing was accessible. You start to understand the world was not made for you. Society doesn’t think about it, and you have to make society see you.”

Dalzell eventually received a nursing degree from City University in New York, but found life after graduation difficult after failing to convince hospital staff that she could perform nursing job duties in a wheelchair. She said she was told she wouldn’t be able to do bedside nursing work because of her disability. 

“But they don’t know me,” Dalzell said. “I know what my capabilities are. Why allow someone who doesn’t understand to dictate their ‘no’ to me? They will never understand where I’m coming from until they’re in my position.”

Dalzell persevered and, after 76 job interviews, was finally hired as the first registered nurse in a wheelchair in New York. She was crowned Ms. Wheelchair New York in 2015. She also was awarded $1 million after receiving the Craig H. Nielsen Foundation’s Visionary Prize. Since then, she has established The Seated Nurse, a nonprofit that works to bridge the gap between education and employment for those with disabilities.

“I’ve graduated 5 young ladies from nursing school,” Dalzell said. “The goal is to be able to say anyone and everyone can join the medical field. We understand the level of care we want to receive from our health care providers, so we’re able to communicate that. The students I’ve mentored so far excel and advocate for their patients in a way other people cannot.”

The virtual celebration also featured messages from Alaskans with disabilities. Anchorage’s Special Olympian snowboarder Chris Vance said he is motivated by gold medalist Shaun White, and said he is proud because his disability does not slow him down.

“Disability pride means I can do everything like the professionals,” Vance said.