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Smoky Eyes Don’t Come Easy

Steph Aiello's elaborate makeup tutorials have made her an Instagram star, but the quadriplegic beauty vlogger says she had to fake it before she could make it.

For many, cosmetics and beauty products are more than just make-up. It’s a type of armor, war paint, and decoration, all in one. With just the gentle sweep of a few brushes, a person can reimagine themselves any way they like, erasing perceived imperfections and boosting confidence.

Steph Aiello.

Steph Aiello, a professional make-up artist with over 100,000 Instagram followers under her handle @uwalk_iglide–knows better than most people the transforming power of make-up. After surviving not one but two devastating car accidents, Aiello was left a quadriplegic, but has still become a powerful symbol of beauty, positivity and perseverance.

Folks spoke with Steph about her Instagram success, why cosmetics are more important than people realize, and how beauty has given her a larger voice in the wake of her accident. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell us a bit about your Instagram channel, and your rise to beauty vlogging stardom.

When I originally started on Instagram, I actually launched a different channel [for beauty vlogging] in fear of being teased for my limited hand function. While editing, I would crop my hands out so no one could see them, and I started building a following. When I met Tyra Banks, though, she encouraged me to stop being ashamed of my hands, and instead to make them part of my brand. Since then, I have tried to be open [about my disability], hoping to encourage others that every [level of] ability is beautiful and art has no limitations.

Can you tell us about your accident?

On Oct 24th, 2010, I was in a car accident. I dozed off behind the wheel. One of my passengers and I over corrected the car and we launched off an overpass. My friend was in the back seat sleeping and she didn’t make it. The survivor’s guilt has been rough. I hope I’m making her proud. Two months after my first accident, I was in a second accident on Christmas Day where we were hit by a drunk driver. I remember being in the car in shock that it had happened again. I almost lost my mom that day; I’ll never forget the fear in her voice.

Steph and friend.

What was the hardest thing to get used to, after your accident? How did you rebound?

The hardest thing was learning to try. Everything that took no conscious thought before my accidents suddenly took all the mental and physical strength I had. There was a point where I just stopped trying. I felt like it would be easier to accept my life for what it was. It wasn’t until almost a year later when that thought changed. One day I woke up and remembered my dad saying to me “there’s no such thing as can’t” and I completely snapped out of it. I wanted more from my life and I realized no one was going to get it for me but me.

How has having a disability changed the way you apply makeup?

Being a quadriplegic has changed my entire makeup routine. I now have to open containers with my mouth and lace eyeliner wands through my fingers. It was a challenge to find what works for me but now it’s second nature and I don’t even think about it.

Some people dismiss beauty vlogging as frivolous. Why do you think makeup and cosmetology matters?

Makeup matters because it’s not only art but a form of expression. Every morning I can paint on my canvas exactly what I’m feeling. It’s not only a second voice, but a release for me to be me.

What do you think are the obligations or responsibilities of being an influencer, especially when it comes to disability?

Influencers have an obligation to be honest with their followers. We need to empower others, encourage them to keep trying and practicing. After all, smokey eyes don’t come easy!

“Smoky eyes don’t come easy.”

As for me, an influencer who’s differently-abled, my obligation and ultimate goal is to encourage my community not to lose sight of who they are. If they loved beauty before their diagnosis, then keep loving it! Like I’ve always said, my injury doesn’t stop so I can live my life, so why should I stop living my life because of my injury?

Through my beauty blogging, I was also able to become an ambassador for the Wings For Life World Run, a global running and wheelchair race. That opportunity has opened so many doors for me but more importantly allowed me to share my story with people from all walks of life.

What does beauty mean to you, and how has having a condition changed that?

Beauty has always been a passion of mine, but nothing like it is now. Now it’s an outlet for me to have a larger voice. It’s a way for me to show everyone that there really is “no such thing as can’t”.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back in time?

I’d tell myself that the key to my future happiness is to fake it until you make it. Once I started to fake all the confidence I wasn’t actually feeling, especially as a woman with a disability, I was able to see all of the positive influence I was actually having on other people. I faked it until one day I realized that I was finally becoming the woman I always knew I wanted to be. That was the biggest milestone of my life. There’s nothing like the feeling of being proud of yourself.

Health & Fitness

Rims and Hoops in Afghanistan

After he was paralyzed at 19, Jess Markt made it his mission to teach wheelchair basketball to young men in some of the most war-ravaged nations on the planet.

When people picture the country of South Sudan in northeastern Africa, they typically envision a country devastated by famine and the ravages of war. Yet in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, the focus is on camaraderie rather than conflict, as a group of local men gather to learn the fundamentals of wheelchair basketball. Some are war veterans who lost their legs to land mines; others were born with birth defects or suffered paralysis as the result of polio. Almost all are participating in organized sports for the first time.

At the center of the court sits Jess Markt, a 40-year-old paraplegic with a contagious smile and incredible passing skills. Markt, who is employed as a consultant with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has traveled from Boulder, Colorado to Juba to teach a two-week session on wheelchair basketball. For the past seven years, Markt has trained wheelchair basketball teams in Afghanistan, India, Palestine and Cambodia, and in his home state of Colorado.

Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability…

“Wheelchair basketball has the ability to remove the distinction of disability,” says Markt who became paralyzed at the age of 19 after severing his spinal cord in a car accident. “It gives these young men the idea that they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Historically, disabled people in third-world countries such as South Sudan are often looked upon as social outcasts. They often languish without access to proper medical care and rehabilitation, becoming depressed and isolated. The ICRC’s goal is to change that perception by promoting social inclusion for those with disabilities.

“Many of these players have never been given the opportunity to play a sport before,” Markt says. “They have been kept at home, with no active expectations they would somehow contribute to society. Learning wheelchair basketball gives these players confidence, and helps them realize they can accomplish more than what society thinks they can.”

Inspiring Through Example

A lifelong athlete, Markt was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Oregon, when a tragic car accident in 1996 severed his spine and left him paralyzed. Waking up in the hospital, two weeks after the accident, he was told he would never walk again. Although it was a bitter pill for the competitive track star to swallow, Markt drew strength from his parents, three brothers, and friends who offered him unconditional support.

“I quickly realized I could either view myself as a victim or get to work reconstructing my life,” Markt says.

I quickly realized I could either view myself as a victim or get to work reconstructing my life…

After undergoing rehabilitation, Markt returned to the University of Oregon to complete his bachelor’s degree in English, with a minor in Japanese. His father worked with members of Markt’s fraternity to make the frat house where Markt lived wheelchair-accessible. Thrilled to return to campus and resume his studies, Markt continued to miss the rush of playing competitive sports.

Jess Markt hard at work coaching.

His second chance at basketball came when the Wheel Blazers, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) franchise, sponsored by the NBA’s professional basketball team, the Trail Blazers, invited Markt to join their team three year after his accident.

“Playing basketball again felt like the completion of my rehabilitation,” says Markt who had been active in the sport since the age of 8.

It didn’t take long for Markt to learn that wheelchair basketball was every bit as physical as conventional basketball, and that dribbling a ball while maneuvering a wheelchair, required many hours of practice. In addition to mastering new skills, Markt learned to navigate a sports wheelchair, a model with wheels that are slanted outward, creating a wider more stable base at ground level.

“It took me almost two years to reach the skill equivalent I’d achieved playing standup ball,” says Markt.

From Player to Coach

In 2009, while working as a communications consultant in New York City, and playing wheelchair basketball for the Knicks’ affiliate NWBA team, Markt answered an open call for an experienced American wheelchair basketball coach who could travel to Afghanistan to teach the sport to locals with disabilities.

Intrigued, Markt agreed to travel to Afghanistan for a week to coach wheelchair basketball for disabled players between the ages of 15-45. He held a fundraiser to cover his travel costs and then left to spend a week in Kabul.

“Although I had played wheelchair basketball for nine years, I had never coached before,” Markt says. “Yet the opportunity to travel abroad and train disabled athletes who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in rehabilitative sports, was something I felt really good about doing.”

Eight years after the war began, 2009 was the deadliest year for U.S. service members fighting in Afghanistan. Although Markt was nervous about traveling to a war-torn region, he was also intrigued by the challenge of helping others to pass up the opportunity.

“Being disabled in Afghanistan often means being very marginalized,” Markt says. “Playing sports was never an option for these men and women.”

Being disabled in Afghanistan often means being very marginalized…

Despite initially encountering language barriers, and coaching players who had never before participated in organized sports, Markt soon found that wheelchair basketball not only provided men and women in Kabul with a fun form of rehabilitation, it also gave them the confidence they needed to achieve other life goals.

“Since this program started, many of the players have gotten jobs, and some have even started a small business of their own,” Markt says.

Afghanistan Team in Japan, 2015

After returning to Afghanistan in 2011, Markt accepted a consulting position with the ICRC that same year. Thanks to the ICRC’s efforts, hundreds of disabled players now play wheelchair basketball, with the best of them playing in a national league, and eyeing up the chance to maybe compete one day in the Paralympics.

Given the challenges the disabled Afghans face on a daily basis, including living in a town with few paved roads, and where no Afghan homes have running water, Markt naively assumed they would be an introverted group. He quickly realized his assumptions were wrong.

“They laugh, joke, and talk trash like any other group of athletes might in America,” Markt says.

They laugh, joke, and talk trash like any other group of athletes might in America…

Although most of the players Markt trains are men, he has also trained women in the sport of wheelchair basketball. For the past two years, he has traveled to the Gaza Strip, a small Palestinian territory, that has been at the center of perpetual conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants. In 2015, Markt traveled to Gaza to train local referees and coaches. A year later, he returned to train players and organize tournaments between wheelchair basketball teams.

In a conservative society such as Gaza, playing organized sports is not conventional for women. Markt teaches the women the rules of the game and demonstrates different techniques. He shows them how to share the ball and to work together as a team.

“Being able to travel and serve as a coach is endlessly rewarding and inspiring,” says Markt who also serves as a player and coach on the NWBA team, the Denver Rolling Nuggets.

In the future, Markt says the ICRC hopes to expand wheelchair basketball to more countries and to also offer training in other adaptive sports such as cricket and table tennis.

“I started my work with the ICRC with the intention of helping others who had suffered disabilities,” Markt says. “I’ve come to realize the benefits go far beyond improving the health of the players, learning the sport has also given them a new outlook on life.”

Q&As

The Paralyzed Teacher With The Sweet Pair Of Kicks

YouTube phenom, high school teacher, and quadriplegic Dustin Anderson explains why being vulnerable is the first step towards being understood.

When Dustin Anderson got new shoes last week, YouTube noticed. For those unfamiliar with this process or simply uncomfortable with the idea the Internet “noticing” something, suffice to say lots of people started watching Dustin’s videos. Where his usual content drew 600 daily viewers, there were now 50 thousand. Granted, the shoes were stylish. The five-minute video features Dustin unboxing Nike’s new self-lacing HyperAdapt sneakers that debuted for a cool $720. To date, over 170,000 YouTubers have watched it.

For those eager to pigeon-hole Dustin as a brainless teenager eager to piddle away his life’s fortune because he’s too lazy to tie his own shoes, you should watch his video. At age 21, Dustin broke the c5 and c6 vertebrae in his neck leaving him a quadriplegic. Fast forward ten years and he’s teaching history at his local high school and making videos on how to live life as a quadriplegic: from how to navigate airplane transfers, to how to pick up things off the floor without finger movement.

And, needless to say, he’s got a sweet pair of kicks.

 

While there’s an obvious target audience for Dustin’s videos, there’s something deeply human about his willingness to allow others intimate access to the mundane happenings of his everyday life. Viewers will watch Dustin share his technique for picking up cardboard boxes, pinning them against his chair, and using the turn of the wheel to lift them into his lap. In another video, he lies in bed and shows you his process for putting on clothes.

As you watch Dustin flip himself from side to side, lifting and angling each leg into a blue pair of Nike shorts, you may find yourself fighting alongside of him. Over the last ten years, Dustin has learned something about revealing his weakness to others: his vulnerability gives people strength. Folks sat down with Dustin to learn more about his sudden stardom and his motivation for inspiring from a chair.    

Tell me about the inspiration for your YouTube channel.

I’ve met so many people since I got hurt who haven’t had the opportunity to go to a spinal cord specialist because [their] insurance won’t pay for it. After my injury, I went to the Shepard Center in Atlanta. The age span for most people there was between fourteen and twenty-three. They were just kids. I spent two months in that hospital learning to become more independent. So when I got out, I kept meeting kids locally that had more function and movement than I did, but they didn’t know how to do basic tasks like put on their shoes. They would ask how I became independent, and I felt like a YouTube channel was a way to reach them. You rarely run into people who are injured so this was my opportunity. I started putting up the occasional video about how to do practical things in a wheelchair, and it went from there.

Was there a process of redefining yourself after your injury? Did you ever feel like you lost yourself after getting hurt?

After breaking the c5 and c6 vertebrae in my neck, I lost all arm function and all muscle movement. I had to regain basic skills, like learning to brush my teeth. Once I got out of the Shepard Center, I focused all my attention on walking again. That was my biggest passion. I spent five hours a day working out. Every year I’d fly to California to a place called Project Walk. I did this for five hours a day for five years straight, and then I started thinking that I needed to focus more on becoming independent and going back to school. In case I never walked again, I wanted to have something left of my life. Eventually, I realized that education was my passion, and I ended up graduating from the University of Central Florida and becoming a teacher at the school I attended as a high school student.

 

Did that feel like a defeat?

I don’t think it was a defeat. At some point, I realized that that maybe my purpose wasn’t to walk again. Maybe I was supposed to live without the use of my legs. My thought was that I would walk again and inspire others, but as time went on and I spent five years working with no success, I started to think that maybe that wasn’t my reason for living. I thought that maybe I could give people hope from the chair. That’s what changed for me: just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean I can’t inspire and have a purpose.

Was there a process of accepting this new identity?

Sometimes I tell my students who are chasing girls that they don’t even know who they are yet. I tell them to love themselves and then other things will come. You first have to know who you are. When I got hurt, I went through that process again. I had to ask myself who I was, because I was not the same. My whole life was different. In a way, it was a complete reset. But I have a strong faith in God and knew there was a reason for everything I was going through.

In the recovery process, do any moments stand out as turning points?

One afternoon I was pumping gas into my trunk and an SUV pulled up, the back window went down, and a little girl yelled out that I was awesome. Initially, I was put off. I realized, though, that people noticed what I was doing. I was disabled but still living my life. I still pumped my gas even though it might take me twenty minutes. People see that and it puts their own lives in perspective.

I’m curious about whether or not it was difficult to open up about all of this on YouTube.

That was the hardest thing. I wanted to help people like me but didn’t run into them very often. YouTube was my only way to reach people, but it was embarrassing. I had to show people how I got dressed from the bed and show them how long it took to put on socks. Yet I felt like I had to do it. It was the only way I could reach people and help them. Honestly, my main goal was that my students wouldn’t see it. I put my channel under my wife’s name because I didn’t want them finding it. But it just had to be done. There wasn’t a lot of practical information about how to live as a quadriplegic.  

 

You describe yourself on Instagram as “enjoying long rolls on even sidewalks.” Have you always been able to find humor in your situation?

It’s something I was able to do right away. I’m not really sure why. It’s not that I’m making fun of the situation, it just makes it easy on other people. In being light hearted about my injury and showing them that it doesn’t bother me, it helps others approach me.

I still remember people coming into the hospital and seeing me. They were so upset. Yet the more I smiled and the more I showed that I was unbothered, they would feel more comfortable and know that I was okay.

That’s puzzling. This is something you did for other people?

Yes. It’s the same situation with my students. When they first come and meet me, they’re scared. They’re terrified to ask questions or offend me. But when I’m light-hearted about my situation, they’re so much more willing to ask questions and be open. They grow close to me and feel like they can ask me anything.

What motivated you to become a teacher and how does your disability affect your work?

Teaching was the job that felt I could enjoy and still give me a purpose. When I was in high school, I would have laughed at you if you’d said I was going to be a teacher. I was a terrible kid and spent a lot of time suspended for being a class clown.

But in my classroom I tell my story on the first day. The kids see my disability, and I’m not sure what it is, but they grow extremely close to me. I have forty kids in my classroom every day for lunch. They always want to talk and they open-up about their problems. Maybe it’s that they see my issues and are absolutely aware that my life isn’t perfect. Perhaps that makes them feel more comfortable to tell me what they’re going through.  Teaching is the job that I’m supposed to have.

 

Your students are drawn to you because they can immediately perceive your weakness?

That’s exactly it. Within a couple weeks, these kids see my weakness on the outside and they are vulnerable with me. My students grow attached and come to me with their issues. My only explanation is they see my disability and feel some closeness. My weakness makes them comfortable.

So for folks that don’t know, you actually received the before-mentioned shoes from the YouTube demigod, Casey Neistat. The guy has close to seven million subscribers. How has your Youtube channel changed since Casey sent you these and shared your Youtube channel?

It’s weird that a pair of shoes did all of this. I almost hope that it was meant to be so that my channel could reach other people like me. That’s always been my ultimate goal. It’s not about how many subscribers I can get or how much money to make. But now I have a platform where out of Casey Neistat’s seven million subscribers, those that have disabilities like mine can find me.

When you’re disabled, it’s easy to get in it into your head that people won’t watch your stuff because they can’t relate to you. But to see that there are people that still care to watch it even though I have a disability truly surprised me.

I didn’t realize that there we so many people out there that could look at someone with a disability and be inspired.

Is there a way in which being disabled makes you feel as though your voice gets lost?

Definitely. My injury stripped away a lot from me. Before I got hurt, I looked as though I didn’t have any weaknesses. I was tall, able to look powerful, and make people listen. Now I look weak, and when I got hurt I wondered who was going to listen to someone that looked like me? That’s how I viewed my situation. It surprises me that people want to hear from me.

Has your perception of weakness changed?

Absolutely. I didn’t realize that there we so many people out there that could look at someone with a disability and be inspired. In a way, I felt that because I was injured my voice was gone. But this YouTube experience has opened my eyes to the power of my own voice. I do have a voice and people want to hear what I have to say.