News | September 16, 2021

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Alum gains following advocating for and inspiring those with disabilities

Like a lot of folks, Chelsea Bear posts pictures and videos of everyday life on Instagram. Beach walks, travel adventures, sunset happy hours — activities most take for granted.

But there’s more of a message behind the Florida Gulf Coast University alumna’s social media: Many people with disabilities enjoy the same things you do — with some additional challenges and adaptations. A 28-year-old public relations professional and motivational speaker based in Fort Lauderdale, Bear was born with cerebral palsy, which primarily affects her legs and the way she walks. Through her upbeat Instagram presence, she also has embraced a vocal and visible role as an advocate and influencer for people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities. As an educator building awareness among the rest of the population, she also invites the world to walk in her shoes for a while.

Photo shows FGCU graduate
“At the end of the day, I’m just one woman sharing my life in hopes of creating a more accepting world,” Chelsea Bear wrote on Instagram. Photos submitted.

So she shows what it’s like boarding a plane, climbing stairs or sightseeing at landmarks.

“I love traveling,” Bear says. “But the most intimidating part is wondering am I going to be stuck in my hotel room because can’t get around the city? I try to shine a light on whether cities are accessible. That resonates with a lot of people.”

Bear’s matter-of-fact yet motivational Instagram posts about living with a disability — working, socializing, shopping, traveling — have gained her more than 167,000 followers. Some of her reels have reached more than 1 million people around the world, generating thousands of comments that have turned into conversations both difficult and enlightening. As a result of her rising profile, CBS News reached out to her last May for an interview on dating while disabled; and she has been selected twice as a brand ambassador for Aerie, an American Eagle women’s apparel line with an inclusive, body-positive ethos.

“I never expected any of this,” Bear says of the attention. “I’ve always felt that I wanted to be heard — I’m pretty confident a lot of people feel that way. I wanted to educate and raise awareness. My goal is to have these conversations but in a fun way, showing I live my life like everyone else, with some adaptations. Talking about it shouldn’t be uncomfortable.”

Overall, Bear felt she was kind of an open book when it came to her cerebral palsy. Like most of her peers at Florida Gulf Coast University, she lived on campus her first two years. She was active in Chi Omega and regularly volunteered for Make-A-Wish Southern Florida while pursuing her communication degree. Sometimes, she used a motorized scooter she calls Scootz to get around campus. If someone asked, Bear wouldn’t hesitate to talk about her disability.

“It wasn’t me proactively sharing it, putting it all out there on the table,” the 2015 graduate recalls. “Looking back, I wasn’t ready to do that in college. I needed a little more personal growth in my relationship with my disability.”

The turning point for Bear came about three years ago, when she realized a friend she had known for a couple of years didn’t understand her disability or how it impacted Bear’s daily life. This friend had asked another mutual friend about it instead of talking to Bear.

“That moment made me take a step back,” she says. “I realized I wasn’t doing myself any favors by not addressing the elephant in the room. The realization switched things for me and motivated me to start my blog.”

Photo shows FGCU graduate
Chelsea Bear often posts on social media about accessibility of public places.

After some stretches of intermittent posting in 2018-19, Bear amped up her activist output in early 2020, channeling her energies as a way to make the best of a time when the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic was spreading and most people were staying close to home. Her 1,000 or so Instagram followers soon multiplied. By April of this year, she had reached 100,000 — an achievement she called surreal. “At the end of the day, I’m just one woman sharing my life in hopes of creating a more accepting world,” she wrote at the time. “I feel so much gratitude for this community and platform, and each quality connection I’ve made along the way.”

The ever-present smile and intrepid attitude she shares on Instagram reflect her drive to inspire others with varying disabilities as well as their families and friends. Inclusivity is her mantra.

“I get a lot of positive messages from people, like ‘I didn’t know anyone else walked like me,’” Bear says. “You feel alone and don’t realize others experience the same sort of things, too, whether they have cerebral palsy or not.”

Not all the feedback is positive. People sometimes post insensitive or ignorant comments. Bear strives to turn them into teachable moments. Her #MakeItStop Monday posts draw attention to bullying and encourage empathy.

“Did you know that people with disabilities  make up 15% of our world?” she asked in an August post promoting #WeThe15, a global inclusivity initiative. “If you don’t like what you see, keep scrolling, but please know you’re bound to see someone else with a disability in person one day. And when you do, I hope you remember this and choose to be kind. You don’t need to go out of your way to ask ‘what’s wrong with them?’ ”

By sharing her life experiences, she hopes to enlighten those who don’t understand disabilities while also inspiring those who do. Misunderstanding still surrounds cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. It is typically diagnosed during the first or second year after birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and affects about 1 in 345 children — the most common motor disability of childhood.

“It really varies so much from person to person,” Bear says. “I’ve met people who have it even more mild than me, maybe a slight limp. Others are more severe and can’t talk or walk. Someone like me, I’m kind of in the middle. I can walk but rely on a scooter for longer distances. There are a lot of misconceptions I am working against that I can’t do certain things for myself that I can. I have to prove myself and prove my disability doesn’t limit me — by owning it and talking about it.”

As she says in her Instagram profile, “education leads to understanding.”