Pillars of America speaker Tiana Tozer poses for a picture with eighth grade students from Floyd Dryden Middle School at Centennial Hall on Wednesday.

Pillars of America speaker Tiana Tozer poses for a picture with eighth grade students from Floyd Dryden Middle School at Centennial Hall on Wednesday.

Tiana Tozer: More than a disability

Author, human rights activist, paralympian: Tiana Tozer has played many roles in her life. The one role she refuses to play is victim.

Tozer spoke at Juneau Rotary’s Pillars of America series Wednesday at Centennial Hall. Severely injured by a drunk driver at 20 years old, Tozer lost the use of her right leg from the knee down. Through countless surgeries she has learned to walk unassisted and has never allowed her disability to slow her down.

Tozer focused on two themes when speaking to the more than 200 youth attending Wednesday’s program: your appearance doesn’t define you, and sometimes the choices you make last forever.

She opened her speech by talking about how people treat you differently when you have a disability.

“I was in a restaurant once and I stood up from my wheelchair to put my trenchcoat on,” Tozer started. “A woman then stood up in the back of the restaurant and said, ‘I was feeling sorry for you before you stood up.’ And I said to her, ‘Why would you ever feel sorry for a stranger in a wheelchair?’ Maybe I’m not deserving of your pity, maybe I’m a mean, evil and nasty person. Yet she wants to pity me. Any time we judge somebody based on one thing, whether it’s a physical characteristic, or a chance encounter, invariably we’re going to be wrong.”

Tozer boils her life down to two important choices — the choice an alcoholic made to get behind the wheel on May 14, 1988, and the choice she made to chase her dreams despite not knowing if she’d ever walk again.

As a rugby-playing sophomore at the University of Oregon, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and T-boned the vehicle she was riding in, throwing her into the intersection. A 3,000 pound vehicle then ran over her lower body.

“All of a sudden there’s a flash, and I am out on the ground,” Tozer said. “I am thinking, ‘Where am I? Am I on the rugby field? Who just tackled me and why can’t I get up?’ … The last thing I remember on May 14, 1988, was being taken to this big, white room and hearing this woman screaming, ‘Please put me to sleep, don’t make me stay awake for this.’ Right when I lost consciousness I realized it was me who was screaming.”

Tozer spent a month in critical condition in the hospital undergoing near-daily surgery. Doctors never expected her live, much less walk again, and almost needed to amputate her right leg below the knee.

“What happened was it broke my left hip and everything below my left hip,” she explained to the audience. “But it had crushed my lower right leg. … It (the vehicle) had severed my right artery, so the muscles that were in there were dying.”

“I realized that everything I had planned for my life is now in pieces around me as broken as my body,” Tozer realized. “Whether or not I walk again is questionable, and whether or not I leave the hospital is also questionable. I am 20 years old, and I don’t want to live anymore.”

Her single mother was supportive, and wouldn’t allow Tozer to lower any of her expectations. Tozer credits her mother’s tough love with helping her move on with her life.

After leaving the hospital, Tozer’s mother asked her, “What are you going to do with the rest of your summer?”

“Recover?” Tozer replied.

“Well, that’s great but I don’t want you sitting around the house all summer. It’s an election season, so I think you should volunteer for a campaign,” her mother said.

After weeks of driving Tozer to physical therapy and the election office, Tozer’s mother said she couldn’t take off work each day any more and that Tozer should learn how to ride the bus.

“This really terrible thing happened to me, and my mother still had expectations,” Tozer recalled. “She expected me to go on and live my life to the best of my ability. When we have expectations of people, the tendency is for them to rise to those expectations. I know a lot of people think my mother’s mean, but that’s called tough love, and I know my mother loves me. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know if I’d be standing here today.”

Tozer went on to win five wheelchair national championships and four international medals.

She left the young crowd with a message that she hoped will resonate with them the rest of their lives.

“Attitude and belief are powerful things. Only you get to decide if you’re going to place limitations on your own life. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and cannot do. I won’t ever tell you what you can’t do, however, I do expect one thing of you: Whatever the choices you make, live and deal with the consequences.”

• Contact Sports Editor Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

Pillars of America speaker Tiana Tozer tells her story of being hit by an drunken driver when she was 20, at Centennial Hall on Wednesday. Tozer went on to medal at the 1992 and 1996 Paralympics as a member of the Women's Basketball Team. Tozer was the second speaker in the series hosted by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club. Warren Moon is the last speaker in the series on Wednesday, May 4.

Pillars of America speaker Tiana Tozer tells her story of being hit by an drunken driver when she was 20, at Centennial Hall on Wednesday. Tozer went on to medal at the 1992 and 1996 Paralympics as a member of the Women’s Basketball Team. Tozer was the second speaker in the series hosted by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club. Warren Moon is the last speaker in the series on Wednesday, May 4.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Aug. 14

Here’s what to expect this week.

Supporters of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wait for an opportunity to talk to her at her newly Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Murkowski opens up at Juneau HQ debut

Senator chats with supporters about U.S. vs. Belgium voting, moose chili and Project Veritas

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

U.S. Senate candidate Shoshana Gungurstein stars in a campaign sign within view of the Alaska governor’s mansion. Gungurstein, an independent, got exposure this week for being a Hollywood actress under a different last name after questions about her past went unanswered throughout the campaign. She is one of 19 candidates seeking to be among the four selected in next Tuesday’s primary to compete in the November general election. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Senate candidate sheds more light on background

Shoshana Gungurstein responds at length to recent report on past film career.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Drug arrest made in Skagway

Police say a suspicious package was intercepted.

This late-April photo shows a damaged sticker on a door at Thunder Mountain High School reminding people to social distance and wear masks inside the building. Masks will not be required in school buildings this year. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year

No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Friday Aug. 12, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

From left, Kelsey Dean, watershed scientist with the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, and Kaagwaan Eesh Manuel Rose-Bell of Keex’ Kwáan watch as crew members set up tools to drag a log into place. Healthy salmon habitat requires woody debris, typically provided by falling branches and trees, which helps create deep salmon pools and varied stream structure. (Courtesy Photos / Mary Catharine Martin)
 
The SalmonState: Bringing the sockeye home

Klawock Indigenous Stewards and partners are working to a once prolific sockeye salmon run.

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read