Episode 46 Transcript

Published: Thursday May 9, 2024

Mason Branstrator | Turning Paralysis into Purpose

How rebuilding life included positivity, family support, and a thriving online presence.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. I want to paint a picture. A beautiful picture of this amazing guest that I have in front of me right now. His name is Mason. And the first time I saw him, his social media across the social media, angels on Instagram and he was sliding across a frozen pond in his wheelchair with this Firefly electric scooter attachment, doing like doughnuts on a frozen lake.

Making the scooter look cool, which was pretty incredible in itself and he was like this bright light of positivity and hope. Mason flies through my Instagram and I go Oh my God. Like he just like gave me this feeling and now he’s sitting in front of me and I’m so excited.

Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, Mason. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you. Thank you so much for your time.

Mason Branstrator: First of all, thank you so much for that incredible introduction. Ohh my gosh, I am absolutely honored. And second of all, thank you for all of the work that you do for our community and advocating for us because it is so important to have people on the front lines talking to organizations about what it is that wheelchair users need to be fully integrated and accepted into our society today.

So thank you. Thank you so much for. Having me on.

Alycia Anderson: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and what brought you to this advocacy work that you’re doing today?

Mason Branstrator: My name is Mason Branstrator I. I was born and raised in Duluth, MN and lived out in the country and my entire life with two wonderful parents. They gave me every opportunity that a young kid could want. I played sports. I ran. I was the captain of my soccer team and soon to be captain of my track team.

My favorite thing to do was run even when I was a really little boy. When I was younger, I loved art. I loved people. I loved talking to people and as I grew older, I knew that I wanted to help people somehow. And, I was the friend in the group that everyone would come to with their problems, or if they needed help with something and I always had time to provide support for other people.

And, when I was 17 years old, after I had lived this wonderful childhood, I was in the car with my father after a fishing trip, and I was telling him Dad, that I really want to help as many people as I can, but I don’t know how because I’m this white privileged male living in Duluth, MN and what adversity do I bring to this world? Why would anybody ever listen to me? I don’t struggle with mental health. I don’t have any problems.

And, my dad really didn’t have an answer for me, but he said something will happen and you’ll be able to help people somehow. And that was two days prior to my accident.

I was just going for a normal ski downhill skiing at Spear Mountain in Duluth, MN and as I eagerly ran over to the hill, I was super excited to do the first run of the day and I came down the hill with some speed. And, as I was going off one of my favorite jumps I thought to myself I’m going a bit fast. And that was the last thing I remember before waking up in the ICU.

And, I was told that I broken my back. I might not ever walk again. And I was scared. I was confused. I didn’t know what was happening, to be honest, I didn’t even know what paralysis was, you know, just had no idea what was happening.

When I was on the ski hill. I don’t remember anything from the time that. I left the jump to the time I woke up in the ICU, but I was informed that I was just yelling for help in pain. I was scared. I was sure that my legs were broken and I didn’t know why I couldn’t move them, and when I got to the ICU, the doctors explained all of this they said you’re going to have to use a wheelchair, most likely for the rest of your life.

We don’t know if you’re going to walk again, and you might never walk again.

And I just said, OK, you know, this is the next step. This is part of my journey. And my parents had really prepared me throughout my entire childhood for facing this amount of adversity. And I just took it with a smile, you know, and optimism.

And there was really no other way in my mind that it made sense to endure something so traumatic.

Alycia Anderson: The doctors tell you that you may never walk again.

And I read in an article somewhere and it I think it was in Voyager Magazine or something that you did.

And that quote was pretty impactful for you in processing.

And tell me if I’m wrong… in processing. What is your abilities or not?

Mason Branstrator: Yes, thank you so much for asking this, because this is something that’s been so hard for me to process and share because it was confusing for a long time.

I was vulnerable. You know, the doctors came in repeatedly and told me. Mason, you may not ever walk again. And to me, that came across as just purely, Mason you’re never gonna walk again.

It’s over. Like throw in the towel. You’re just going to have to use the wheelchair.

And as I went through my therapies and my rehab at Craig Hospital, which was an incredible rehab facility and there was never any word spoken of, you may not walk again. It was. Just positive and optimistic and when I got there, everything changed, but still I had this thought in the back of my head of I’m not going to walk again.

I was having this internal battle and as so many people know, with recovery after a traumatic event, so much of it is mental.

Even parts of the physical aspect of recovery become mental. Because you’re trying to move your legs again, you’re trying to move your toes, and if you don’t believe. That you can move your toes and your legs. Then you’re gonna have a really hard time doing it.

And so every time I would have these small victories, I would get movement back. I would stand for the first time I would get my wheelchair in the back of my car.

I would walk with a Walker.

I always thought it’s not good enough. I’m not actually walking. I’m not actually going to walk again.

And, to this day, those words of the doctors that were uninformed. That did not have the right to tell a vulnerable 17 year old that he would not walk again.

Those words have stuck in my mind, and it was trying to assert. Uh. Maybe not power, but just knowledge over me that they knew what my future was going to be like when they really had no idea.

And at the time of my injury, I was diagnosed incomplete, which means that anything is possible.

Alycia Anderson: The wild thing about this, and I talk about it a lot when I speak to and I didn’t have an injury, but…

Mason Branstrator: Right.

Alycia Anderson: …there was assumptions and unknowns placed on me too.

And it happens, I think to all of us living with disabilities or any type of condition and we… they… put us in these categories and it sticks.

But, if we can move into like a future of professionals going this is what we’ve seen, but these are also the things that are possible. That can… It’s a shift in mindset, where you go like, ohh I can do that. They told me I can. You know, instead of going through this like years of lifetime processing.

So, I just think it’s fascinating. I love that you talk about that because I think it’s really important for professionals out there to hear the effects that take us backwards.

So, thank you for sharing that. And then how did you shift out of it? Because I know that you started to have kind of a new relationship with your, I’m going to air quote legs.

Mason Branstrator: I totally view it as a relationship with my legs, and really the shift in the use of my legs came when I moved out of this framework of I need to walk to be functional.

When you get paralyzed, there is such a big emphasis on walking and what it will do for you and all of the doors it might open and in the rehab you start to believe that if I can’t walk, I can’t do certain things.

And that’s just not true.

And, with me it gets really complicated because I have an ability to stand but not walk super fast. And so it took me a long time to realize that I could stand up and do things functionally.

Nobody told me that… nobody said, hey, go try this. It actually took almost a year and a half, maybe a year for me to come back to my hometown, and my personal trainer in Duluth, MN. Blake Peters, he’s the man over there.

He encouraged me to experiment and to try new things, and that’s when I really began on this journey of social media and exploring what my body is capable of and deciding that it was very important for me to show other people what we’re capable of as paralyzed people. Because so often, we get put in that box.

And… things in our future become uncertain. And, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Alycia Anderson: So, I think you and I have a lot of similar vibes in trying to lean into the power of our disability.

I do the same thing like and it took me a lot longer than you to be like, yes!!!

You know, like it’s taken me a long time… like I’m a lot older than you.

But how does optimism… working within your platform, your process… all of that?

Mason Branstrator: Something that allowed me to be confident in what was going to happen was just staying positive and optimistic and knowing that whatever happened I had already gone through something so traumatic and I have so many people around me that were helping me that I could handle it.

And, I would endure.

And throughout the process of rehab and everything. I found that whatever energy I brought to it, and all of the optimism that I brought to it, would be funneled right back to me.

I think ultimately though my parents prepared me for this and they instilled that optimism in me, and when the time came, that things got scary and got unknown.

I was prepared with that optimism in my back pocket and I just used it to the best of my ability.

Alycia Anderson: I love that you just brought up your parents. I’m a little bit obsessed with them because they remind me a lot of how mine were too.

And, I’m going to not be embarrassed and say I was stalking your Instagram. And I saw the video that went viral with you and your dad, like a million views or something like that. It’s you climbing on your dad’s back and he’s carrying you up three flights of stairs and then your mom has your chair and it’s following you two up the steps.

And the caption was something like, he’s never left me behind.

And that’s how my parents were for me too, with my disability. Like there was so many three cases of stairs going. No, you don’t belong. And it’s going to make me cry. And they were the ones that are like you belong. Let’s go.

Can you talk a little bit? Just like, let’s like, lift them up for a minute about the gifts.

Mason Branstrator: From the time, I was little they always just filled me with so much love and confidence about the things that I could do.

And, when I had my accident. Things were really hard.

And I don’t want to toot my own horn too much, but from how they prepared me as a child. I took that into this traumatic event and I was able to be somewhat of a rock and I showed them that things could still be positive, and they didn’t have to be so hard.

And, I led the way and they just followed my lead.

And then when the time came, when after these things happen and you have time and you then start to process them, then my parents were right there and they were ready to just give me the world again and still.

And, when we went to Germany, which is where that video was that you’re talking about, they just said to me, hey, Mace, we’re going on a family trip to Germany.

And when we got to that train exit, so we had gotten off the train. We’re in the subway, we get out, and the elevator’s broken. And, we look up these three staircases and my dad just looks at me. He’s like, alright, you know, I’m… I’m gonna carry you up.

He’s like maybe we should film it.

And so, we just put the camera up and, you know, filmed us overcoming, you know. And a lot of people from the community, it can be said that maybe I should have leaned more into the inaccessible part of it, but I personally believe that through showing love and overcoming things that… that can be seen as well.

Alycia Anderson: I could hear people going, why didn’t you advocate for inaccessibility there? That was a missed opportunity.

But, I’m with you in that you didn’t have to say it. It was already very visibly there, and it’s an an issue.

And when I lived in Europe too, I had very similar experiences and what that taught me is. Inclusion is collaborative and sometimes we have to adapt, and when there’s inaccessibility it gives us an opportunity to figure out other ways too.

So we’re not left behind.

You are listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, Mason. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you.

Can you talk through what you’re doing with your platform and your goals and all of that?

Mason Branstrator: I would love to. I think when I came into this space, I didn’t even know what I was doing. I just started sharing things about my life and seeing what people were interested in and along the way of sharing these things, like you say organically, right, it’s… this is just me.

What I put out. And my videos are just how I am and how I navigate the world.

And when I do something when I overcome something that’s inaccessible and have a smile on my face, that’s cause. I’m proud and I’m like this… I just did that like showing you guys how I do it, and… I again, also acknowledge that that’s a privilege that I have as a T12 paraplegic with some leg function.

And I’m still figuring out my… what’s the word? Duty in this space to advocate for all disabled people. Because power chairs and quadriplegics and people that have less mobility, it’s very different and they can’t just say, oh, you know, I’ll just carry my power chair up the stairs.

And so, I think there’s room for all of that stuff, but I also want to show that with my specific situation, I can overcome these things.

And the positivity that I’ve put out has been so well received. I have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers and I have received nothing really, but support and encouragement and I am blessed and grateful for all of that.

Yeah, I think just coming at it with an approach of positivity and optimism allows able bodied people to be so much more involved and to be happy about participating because when you try to make them the enemy, and when you make them feel like they’re the enemy, then they get defensive.

So, coming at it from a standpoint of positivity and welcoming people into the space and instead of discouraging them from being a part of it, is what I plan to do.

And I want to continue to share not only my story, but also down the line, other people’s stories in video format.

Alycia Anderson: I love it before we wrap up. Do we miss anything?

Mason Branstrator: I would like to just say how important the Firefly attachment has been for me, but also just. E-Assist devices in general for wheelchair users. They’re really quite a new thing. I mean, in the in the past decade or so, I guess.

And I think so many wheelchair users are resistant to them because they feel like it’s giving in or you’re cheating.

But the reality is we weren’t meant to live in wheelchairs and our shoulders are paying the price for pushing them every day. And having an E-assit device is so important for longevity of mobility.

And I’ve been really fortunate to be paralyzed in a time where they were readily accessible and made available to me. And in rehab… honestly, the Firefly was kind of a side venture and nobody really explained the mobility that it would provide for me.

And now I use my Firefly every single day as a college student to get to class, I’m gonna go to LA to swim with Mike. Which raises funds for college education for disabled individuals, and I’m going to be bringing it there.

I’ll bring it on the plane. You know, it just allows me to get on grass on gravel.

I’m taking it to Coachella. I’m going to go there. All kinds of things. So yeah, if you’re interested in learning more about E-assist devices or the Firefly specifically, on my website I have a ton of videos of me using it.

And you can use my code “Mason” for free shipping.

But there’s also grant organizations that cover E-assist devices specifically a lot of them cover The Firefly. So…

Alycia Anderson: I love that you brought it up and maybe even giving a quick verbal visual of what that is for people that don’t understand. Like, where does it go? How? Does it work?

Mason Branstrator: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it attaches just right onto the front of your wheelchair.

And it’s just like an electric scooter, and it allows you to lift up your casters so that you can navigate all kinds of terrain up to 13 mph fast.

And it has a range of 16 miles and you put it on in in a minute or so and it gets you around really quickly over gravel over grass.

I’ve taken it on trails in the backwoods, long distances. It’s just awesome. You know, you have one hand free because one hand’s on the throttle, so you could use your phone or whatever you want to do.

Yeah, I mean, the mobility that it’s provided me is just incredible, and the places that I’ve been able to go and the things I’ve been able to experience have just been incredible and I know no different.

I got it. Maybe a year, actually… six months after my injury, I believe.

And, so that’s just kind of been life for me and I forget like how much it actually provides me compared to individuals who don’t have E-assist devices.

Alycia Anderson: I gotta say, like, I feel like you single handedly have changed the view of how cool these things can be.

I mean, I started this podcast talking about you sliding across the pond, doing doughnuts with it, and what you’re showing is its versatility and where it can go and what it can do.

And… And it’s very nimble. It’s incredible. I mean, I think you popped out skate pipes with it. I don’t know. Like, it feels like you’ve gone downstairs.

It seems like you go everywhere with this thing.

Mason Branstrator: I did. Yeah. I’ve gone down a staircase with it on. I went down backwards.

Alycia Anderson: What’s the website? And we’re going to definitely link to it.

Mason Branstrator: Yeah, the website is… my website is masonbran.com. Just MASONBRA N.com. You can find the link to Real Mobility on there, but also all of my videos and my affiliate code as well.

Alycia Anderson: So, I always love it when my guests exit and can give a little bit of advice to our listeners.

Like do you have a pushing forward moment that you can share with us?

Mason Branstrator: Yeah, something that really helped me get through a lot of things at the beginning was realizing what I couldn’t change.

And so, many big things that we obsess over and consume us are just things that won’t change.

And the thoughts and the grief and the feelings about those things will pass over time and you will come to accept whatever has happened eventually.

And realizing those things that we can’t change is so important to accepting them, especially with spinal cord injuries. There’s so much not accepting of ourselves. And not accepting of these parts of ourselves that we didn’t ask for.

But, that is part of the journey. And it’s what makes us ultimately so strong and so special.

Alycia Anderson: I don’t know. It’s one of the top pushing forward moments we’ve had I think.

Mason Branstrator and Alycia Anderson: [laughing]

Alycia Anderson: Nice work Mason.

Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate this. This has been such a beautiful conversation. I’m so happy to get to know you, friends for life. Hopefully.

Mason Branstrator: Yes, yes. Totally.

Alycia Anderson: Keep freaking going. You are changing the world and bringing so much joy to it. And thank you for doing the work that you’re doing. It is freaking powerful.

Mason Branstrator: Likewise, honored to be here.

Alycia Anderson: And thank you to our Pushing Forward with Alycia Community.

This has been another awesome episode. Thanks for showing up again.

This has been Pushing Forward with Alycia and that is literally how we roll on this podcast.