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Disability Advocate Named Finalist in 'Local Heroes' Contest

Jennifer Malatesta, diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy part 2, has a chance to win a customized, accessible vehicle.

The Malatesta Family. (Photo Courtesy NMEDA)
The Malatesta Family. (Photo Courtesy NMEDA)
Having been told in the early 1970s that she likely wouldn't live past the age of 2, Jennifer Malatesta is no stranger when it comes to beating the odds.

Now the Silver Spring woman, who was diagnosed as a baby with Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 2, is hoping to win a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle, courtesy of the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association's Local Heroes contest. 

Spinal Muscular Atrophy part 2 is caused by a loss of specialized nerve cells, called motor neurons, in the spinal cord and brain stem, according to the government's Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. This can lead to weakness and atrophy of the muscles used for crawling, walking, sitting up and controlling head movement. 

Malatesta is a finalist for the Local Heroes contest, where people can vote for their favorite "local hero." The top vote-getter will be awarded a customized, accessible vehicle. 

Currently Malatesta uses a 1993 Volkswagen van to get around, which is far from ideal. The van has failed Maryland emissions testing, and its lift has become very unreliable, even sticking with Malatesta still on it. 

“I need a wheelchair accessible van, and they cost a lot of money, and we are actually in the process to get one from the department of rehabilitation, but they don’t pay for your van. They only pay for the ramp,” Malatesta told the Gazette

While her diagnosis at a young age came with an ominous prediction that she could never date, marry, have children or achieve independence, Malatesta has spent her life proving that wrong. 

She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Wright State University in 1992, has two daughters with her husband and is an award-winning author who offers relationship and pregnancy advice to women with disabilities. 

“My mom is the strongest woman I know. She fought for me, for my family, and for anyone who needs her help," her daughter Emili told NMEDA. 

According to NMEDA, Malatest has donated her computer expertise to her church, including publishing bi-monthly newsletters and coordinating fundraising appeals. She has often opened her home to people who had nowhere else to live.

“I think my life’s work is to debunk and defy social norms around what it means to live with a disability," she said. 

Malatesta commutes from Silver Spring to Rockville every day, a journey that often takes her more than three hours using the Metro Access service. 

To vote for Malatesta, or for more information about NMEDA, click here

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