A disabled South Florida author who recently won statewide honors is using her victory to spread awareness, combat bullying and foster positive social and legislative change.
Katherine Magnoli of Sunny Isles Beach was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2017 on April 1 at the fifth annual Empowerment and Leadership Conference and Gala at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Contestants were judged on their knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act, public speaking skills and the impact of their personal platforms.
Magnoli vied for the title of Ms. Wheelchair Florida two years previously, winning second runner-up in 2015 and first runner-up in 2016. Having won top honors this year, she will represent Florida at Ms. Wheelchair America this August in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her win also gives her the opportunity to travel throughout Florida to spread awareness, address barriers and misconceptions and speak with policymakers, grassroots groups and disability organizations.
“It’s an amazing honor and I’m so happy to have won,” Magnoli said. “It’s a lot of hard work and a real learning experience; I’m still trying to figure it out day by day. I’ve never been this focused on something other than my book ever in my life. It’s just something I’m so passionate about, and I want to do the best job that I can.”
The 32-year-old has written “The Adventures of KatGirl,” a children’s book series that follows a superhero in a wheelchair who combats bullying while encouraging young people to never give up on their dreams. Like her titular character, Magnoli uses a wheelchair due to a birth defect called spina bifida. She has published four books in the series.
When not writing, co-hosting an online radio show (WEI Network’s “Brain Matters” with Robert Gottesman) or running a writers’ group at her local Center for Independent Living, Magnoli is advancing two disability-related educational programs: “The KatGirl Code of Conduct,” which spreads compassion by teaching bullies about disabilities; and “Youbilities,” an initiative to change perceptions of people with disabilities through positive reinforcement and the use of current and historical role models.
“As soon as Katherine was crowned, the very next day she had events lined up,” said Shari Wilson, state coordinator for Ms. Wheelchair Florida. “She’s met with the local commissioners and the mayor and is really trying to focus on the issues in her community. She truly has a fighting spirit.”
Writing is a lifelong passion for Magnoli. Born in White Plains, New York, she wrote her first story, a parable about a parrot getting its colors by flying through a rainbow, when she was 9 years old. At the time, she’d spent a year in public school after transferring from a children’s rehabilitation center. In the years that followed, she was bullied often.
“It’s made me into a stronger person because it gave me this outlook of, ‘You want to think that I’m not capable, but I’m going to prove you wrong and show you what I’m made of,’ ” she said. “That gave me ambition, just knowing people doubted me and were making fun of how I look or just the fact that I’m sitting down and they’re standing up.”
In 2005, Magnoli moved to South Florida. She said that while at a pool one day, a boy swam up to her and said he felt sorry for her because she wasn’t swimming like everyone else.
“That kind of gave me this idea that I don’t want people to feel sorry for me; I want people to look up to me and learn about what a disability is and that it doesn’t stop you from doing too many things,” she said. “I think that’s part of my drive and what inspired me to be like, ‘Kids are always staring and always curious and have this perception that if you’re disabled, that they should feel sorry for you.’ That’s not the case. I took that as my inspiration to write these [KatGirl] stories, and the rest is history.”