If Reveca Torres could give just one piece of advice to her 13 year old self, she would tell her “don’t care what anyone else thinks of you, do what you want.” At age 30, that’s exactly what she’s doing, but it took her a while to come to this conclusion and it certainly wasn’t in her plans to be at the helm of her own charity, nor paralyzed from the chest down.

Reveca’s grew up in suburban Chicago with her large family – five of her own siblings, plus four of her cousins who came to live with her when she was six. Ten children in all made for a chaotic and mischievous childhood.

With so many children, flying anywhere was expensive, so the Torres family holidays often involved a road trip. It was New Years, 1994. Reveca was 13 and the family were driving back after visiting Grandma in Mexico. 

An oncoming semi-truck decided to pass another oncoming car, meaning the Torres vehicle was faced with a choice – either hit the semi or go off the road.

They chose to go off the road, hitting the gravel and the driver lost control of the vehicle.

I was in the back sleeping with no seat belt. The car rolled I think four times, I imagine I hit my head on the top of the vehicle, and that’s how I broke my neck at C5-7.

Reveca TorresArtist & Social Change Agent

One of Reveca’s brothers and her mother were thrown through the front windshield, leaving them with two large scars, and her father with an injured shoulder. 

“We were incredibly lucky, so thankful everyone made it.”

The truck driver didn’t stop – but fortunately another car did, who loaded everyone in and dropped them off at the nearest medical facility. With severe injuries, Reveca’s life was literally saved by a stranger.

The clinic they arrived at was small, unable to provide Reveca with the vital care she needed. They told her parents she had a spinal cord injury, and she would have to be taken back to the States.

“Luckily we had family back in the States who could arrange for me to be air-lifted from Mexico to the nearest trauma centre in Houston.”

Once stabilised, she was able to fly back to Chicago for a stint of intensive rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Reveca is a pretty typical C6 spinal cord injury – both arms have similar function, she is able to move her wrists, but has no finger function or grasp. Her triceps are weak, but she has strong biceps and shoulders.

“Then I returned home and it was like what next? I was in 8th grade, my priority was my friends and school, I just wanted to graduate middle school to start high school with everyone else.”

Luckily, Reveca’s school were very supportive, and a little bit lenient, she admits, allowing her to move on with her class.

The support from her family, friends and community, meant that a lot of her emotions of anger or depression regarding the accident never really registered.

“But now looking back, it was a hard time, you are trying to figure out what the heck is going on with your body, bowel and what you can move.”

A lot of her challenges were the basics. She was starting high school, a scary process in itself, but all she could think about was whether the other kids would talk to her, or would they see her as weird because she was in a wheelchair.

Would I get a boyfriend? It’s hard, kids are spontaneous, it wasn’t easy for me to just get up and go

Reveca TorresArtist & Social Change Agent

In her junior year of high school Reveca finally gave in and started using a power wheelchair, which after a teacher told her how much she would benefit from one. It opened her eyes to just how independent she could be.

Art had always been her passion, but after her injury, the thought of pursuing a career in art world went out the window. She considered teaching elementary school but soon changed her mind, and started to feel despondent about her future.

Until she met a teacher who ran the home economics programme at her school.

“They ran a sewing class, but they also turned it into a fashion design show every year and the students were in charge of creating a collection and managing everything that went into.”

Reveca explained her situation to the teacher, who in turn invited her to her classroom, where she had a sewing machine Reveca could operate with her hands.

She didn’t go to lunch very often after that, spending any spare waking second she hand in that classroom, learning how to sew, working on different projects. After encouragement from her sewing teacher, Reveca enrolled in a fashion design programme at the local community college, the first student they’d had who was in a wheelchair.

“They had to learn from me how they could help me, we had to lower tables, mannequins had to be lowered, I also worked with an assistant during the class time, they would help me cut fabric and gather materials to make better use of my time, so I could keep up with the other students… they learnt a lot from having me there and having to adapt things.”

People would always tell her she should design clothes for people with disabilities. But at the time, disability fashion, for want of a better term, involved a lot of Velcro and stretchy things. It wasn’t cool or in any way appealing to a young Reveca, who avoided it for as long as possible.

But nowadays things have changed and Reveca says there’s greater emphasis on designing for different bodies.

People are talking about how we can look good in a chair and have fashionable clothing. It’s exciting to see that even though I’m not doing fashion design anymore

Reveca TorresArtist & Social Change Agent

Reveca would love to see the concept of universal design, often used in architecture applied for clothing.

“If something is provided for the masses, it’s not seen as an adaptive thing, and often times it’s easier for everybody, why not start designing this way with this in mind?”

Maybe not entirely for everything, but in a way that makes clothes in general more accessible for a majority.

In terms of adaptive tools, Reveca is fairly minimalist. Her main accessory is a pair of special scissors with a flatter surface that she can stand on a table and slide along as she cuts. 

She used to use adaptive utensils for eating but soon taught herself how to use regular cutlery.

“I hated taking them with me to a restaurant or to schools, if I pulled them out and dropped them.”

She continued her career in fashion as a theatre costume designer but started to become more of an advocate for the disability sector as time went on, getting involved in various projects.

The idea for Backbones was sparked after a visit to rehabilitation centre, Project Walk in 2008.

People in the centre told her about all the support they received during rehab, but how this was lost once they got home and reality hit.

“Everything was much harder, it was harder to find information, and connection and peer support and just being connected to the community.” 

The challenges people living with a spinal cord injury face are often the basic ones she says. 

“They’re facing health issues, secondary to their spinal cord injury that prevents them from going to an event, seeking out each other. That connection is super important, connecting with healthcare professionals, potential employers and the community in general, otherwise you can feel isolated and it takes a toll on your physical and mental health.”

After talking with her sisters, Reveca realised she had the potential to help connect these people one on one to find that peer support that was missing after they left rehab and went home.

She was lucky enough to meet Johnny Imerman, the founder of Imerman’s Angels, a peer support service for cancer survivors that paired people of a similar age, and type of cancer.

 “I saw how simple it was and thought it would’ve been awesome for me at 13, I didn’t have any mentors, no women or younger girls to talk and share with.”

And Backbones was born, but Reveca admits the hardest thing about starting her own organisation was exactly that – starting.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no experience of managing, budgeting or working with a board.

Reveca TorresArtist & Social Change Agent

I actually went back to that one teacher that showed me how to sew, in tears, saying I don’t know if I should do this. She told me that whatever I do I’m not going to lose creativity, I’m going to bring creativity to whatever I do.”

That was all Reveca needed – she submitted the paperwork needed for starting a non-profit, and never looked back.

She did lots of research and essentially taught herself to run a business from scratch. She also found that as a small non-profit, people often wouldn’t take her seriously.

But she must be doing something right, because here Backbones is, ten years later and still going strong.

Now, one of Reveca’s main goals is to set aside more time for herself to work on art projects. Over the last few years she’s managed to obtain artist fellowships and residencies to do some personal artwork, and she wants to continue these opportunities. 

After long periods of self-doubt, Reveca is finally starting to recognise her potential as an actual artist, and says the fellowships give her a sense of validation.

Fully exposing herself for the first time, Reveca shares the link to her website she has recently launched, where she posts her artwork.

You can also keep up to date with Reveca on Instagram.

If you’d rather listen than read…

Listen to the Podcast with Reveca Torres now.