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Shannon Murray in a formal gown
Shannon Murray: 'Model in a Million'

By Alan St. James

Shannon Murray is a successful actress, model, writer, law graduate, teacher and advocate for people with disabilities. She leaves it to others to decide whether that makes her a role model or a barrier-buster.

“I'm flattered if others view me that way, but that isn't for me to judge. That hasn't been my primary motivator,” said Murray, who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair due to a diving accident when she was 14. “I was and still am determined to prove that people with disabilities can be just as attractive, beautiful, stylish, engaging and sexy as those without disabilities.”

Murray is well on her way to that goal because she hasn't allowed her disability to slow her down or deter her. After being injured, she completed rehabilitation at a center specializing in spinal injuries, returned to college and earned a law degree. She also has become the United Kingdom's first and most successful disabled model. She has appeared on numerous television programs to speak about modeling, acting and the portrayal of people with disabilities in the media, and she has been featured in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

“I sort of got into modeling through luck and a fortunate circumstance,” she said. “Modeling wasn't my primary ambition as a teenager; in 1990, it wasn't the same prolific industry that it is today. ”

Murray said that she had always wanted to be an actress and began taking drama classes at the age of 7. Post-injury, she worried that her acting ambitions were finished and, in fact, was initially discouraged from pursuing acting or modeling. She remained determined, however, and trained at two of the most prestigious speech, arts and drama teaching institutions in London: the Central School of Speech and Drama, and the Actors Centre.

Her break came in 1994 when she won “Model in a Million,” the UK's first-ever modeling competition specifically for people with disabilities. “After I won the modeling competition I've never looked back,” she said. “It opened many doors for me.”

Her win led to many TV appearances, press interviews, magazine editorials and advertising campaigns in the UK, USA and throughout Europe. In 2000, she secured her first role as the female lead in a short film and, last year, she was featured in a film for TV called “How to Look Good Naked...with a Difference,” which brought women with disabilities into the limelight to discuss their body insecurities. She's also the first disabled model to be featured in a nationwide fashion campaign for a large department store chain in the UK and, most recently, was featured in an episode of the BBC TV drama series "Casualty."

Throughout her career, she said, there have been numerous times when she needed to overcome obstacles to prove she belonged, pursue her craft or do her job – whether they were physical barriers or misconceptions about her true needs or abilities.

“Like most people with disabilities, I've dealt with many barriers or misconceptions,” she said. “ We live in a very image-obsessed time, and it's unfair for people to be treated less favorably because of a disability. I don't say anything in those instances. I prefer to let my actions do the talking.

“Sometimes, it's frustrating when people underestimate me, or can't quite believe how ambitious I might be, Also, some people seem to think that paraplegics must get more tired on set. I don't; I work the same hours as everyone else. The only accommodation I require is a wheelchair- accessible photographic location or studio, or some strong people to lift me up steps!”

To add to an already packed schedule, Murray is also a spokeswoman for many issues surrounding spinal cord injury and disability in the media. She is a guest speaker at meetings and seminars on disability issues and concerns, and she lends her time to fund-raising events on behalf of the Spinal Injuries Association, the Spinal Research Trust and other charities. In addition, she has written a number of articles on the diverse aspects and experiences of acquiring a disability and adjusting to a new body image, and she volunteers with a UK-based spinal injuries rehabilitation charity, Back Up, in which she mentors young people who have recently suffered a spinal cord injury.

“I visit these young people to discuss some of my own experiences as a paraplegic teenager and to answer any questions they may feel unable to discuss with anyone else," Murray said. " I try to find out more about them prior to their injury, what was important to them, and show them that many of those things are probably still possible. Obviously, some things are no longer possible; a paraplegic is never going to be performing the role of Odette in ‘Swan Lake' with the Bolshoi Ballet. But life moves on, and you have to move with it or get left behind.”

Mostly, she said, she encourages young people with disabilities to remember who they were and still are.

Ms Murray in her wheelchair

“Essentially, you are still the same person, just in different circumstances,” she said. “It's hard to be positive, but it makes all the difference in how people treat you. If you make it hard for people to be around you, you might find yourself alone.

“You're in charge of how you react to what has happened to you, and it's up to you to help others be relaxed around your disability. It will get better. Most importantly, remember to keep a sense of humor, especially in the most embarrassing situations.”

Murray said she has faced her share of funny or embarrassing moments in her own life and career. “They usually involved lack of access, uneven paving, narrow doorways or stairs,” she said. “My advice is to never be afraid to ask for help if you need it, and if you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, remember to laugh. It will put those around you at ease, too.”

Not surprisingly, Murray said she often uses humor as a teaching tool or a way to help able-bodied people who work with her feel more comfortable. She admitted to possessing “a very quick and dry sense of humor” and said she values her privacy and still “finds it strange to be written about” even though she spends much of her time in a high-profile profession.

“I really don't think my likes or dislikes are all that much different from anyone else. I like big hugs, good kisses, watching Will Ferrell or Farrelly Brothers films with my brothers, dogs, windy beaches, the taste of lemon sorbet, warmth, the smell of a log fire – and, the first coffee of the day! I very much dislike bigotry, apathy, bullying, racism, punctures in my tires – and egg white. (Yuk)!

“I'm just a woman who had an unlucky accident as a teenage girl, who was stubborn and didn't want her life to change more than necessary,” she once wrote. “I was just a girl who wanted to look pretty and fashionable just like her friends, who wanted to get out of tracksuit bottoms and oversized trainers, and get rid of the metal traction on her head, the metal braces on her teeth, and the restricting brace around her back!”

Mostly, Murray said, she lets the future take care of itself. It is advice she freely gives to anyone who asks – especially others with disabilities.

“I just take it one day at a time,” she said. “Next month, I'm taking a trip to San Francisco. Beyond that, who knows what the future holds? I hold stock in the old saying 'Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.'

“ I work hard because I'm determined and enjoy what I do. I like to think I might be able to prove that disabled people can be just as accomplished and successful as an able-bodied person.”

Alan St. James is a professional editor and writer and a longtime disability advocate. He enjoys traveling, cruising with his classic muscle car, and musical theater. He lives in Albany, N.Y.

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