Our first meeting doesn't sound that different from Will and Kate's; I was in a fashion show, gliding down the runway. Cameron would tell you that he spotted me in a white gown and I took his breath away. However, we aren't royalty, and we didn't walk down the aisle to say our vows when we eventually tied the knot. That's because we met in wheelchairs at the Abilities Expo 2009 in Los Angeles, a forum that is dedicated to educating and improving the lives of Americans with disabilities.
When I was 17 years old and a high school student in New Hampshire, a car accident left me with a spinal cord injury, paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Cameron's injury was more recent. A motorcycle accident when he was 29 left Cameron in a coma for three weeks. He suffered multiple strokes and is now paralyzed from the chest down.
Cameron sought me out after the fashion show at the Abilities Expo, and I was immediately struck by his sweet nature. While Cameron was interested in exploring a romantic relationship after our first meeting, it didn't seem feasible, since I was living in Seattle and he was living in Las Vegas. We stayed in touch via Facebook and MySpace and reconnected in person after I moved to Las Vegas. Although we built a strong foundation of friendship during my initial months in Vegas, I quickly realized that my feelings for Cameron had grown stronger. We decided to give romance a try, and have been at each other's sides since our first date.
Back at the Abilities Expo two years after our first meeting -- this time as a couple-- Cameron and I headed to the Hermosa Beach pier to watch the sunset. A true gentleman, Cameron lowered himself from his chair onto a park bench and then to the ground so that he could propose. We were married among family and friends last April and recently took our aptly-named "Staycation" honeymoon here in Las Vegas, not only the wedding capital of the world but also one of the most accessible cities for people with physical disabilities.
People have told me they are inspired by our journey toward love and marriage, and we certainly face challenges that not every couple encounters. However, whether those challenges are visible, like our wheelchairs, or invisible, every couple has hurdles to overcome as they plan their weddings and begin life as a two-person team. While it may not be easy to accept and embrace every aspect of your partner -- baggage included -- it is worth the effort. We have learned a few lessons during our romance, engagement and early married life that I believe every couple can take to heart:
1. Don't Settle
Before Cameron came along, I had not found a person with whom I could imagine spending a lifetime. One potential love interest even told me that my disability was just too difficult for him to see past. While it was tough to hear, I appreciated his honesty and came to realize that I did not need to settle for anyone that did not embrace every aspect of me.
The truth is, relationships are difficult not matter who you are and how you deal with your differences. If someone can't accept you for who you are, they aren't worth the time and effort.
2. Find Your Village
Marriage takes work, and it is important to surround yourselves with supportive couples and individuals that can serve as role models and cheerleaders, especially during the rough patches.
Cameron and I are blessed to be supported by a sizeable village of family, friends and colleagues that act as a strong support network. We were also blessed to have our wedding entirely donated by an organization called Wish Upon a Wedding Las Vegas, and our honeymoon donated by 1-800-Registry, a company that offers wedding and honeymoon planning. The generosity of complete strangers blew us away, and made our village even bigger.
3. Remember You Are Worth It
When we were selected to receive our dream wedding, we never imagined a honeymoon in Las Vegas would be around the corner. During a chance meeting with the CEO of 1-800-Registry, I mentioned our upcoming wedding plans and that we probably wouldn't be taking a honeymoon right away due to expenses. Without hesitation he offered to donate our honeymoon, saying that his company is the expert in honeymoon planning, and no one knows Las Vegas better than 1-800-Registry. They even surprised us with a special meet and greet backstage with the talented cast of The Beatle's LOVE by Cirque du Soleil. Throughout our wedding and honeymoon we had to pinch ourselves and keep reminding one another that we deserved this attention and that our love story was worth it.
4. Plans Change
During eight months in the hospital following Cameron's accident, he had time to reflect on his life and rewrite his dreams. It was that clarity that led him to pursue me, propose to me, and find his life's happiness.
Most couples won't face such traumatic obstacles on the road to the altar. However, it's important to be aware that plans can change, and it's how you handle it as a couple that will determine the outcome. As you start the exciting process of planning your wedding, approach it with the mindset that you'll weather the storm together.
5. Embrace a Person-First Philosophy of Love
Person-first language is a respectful way to talk about disabilities that names the person first and the condition second; in other words, "people with disabilities" instead of "disabled people."
If I have one final piece of advice, it would be to embrace this philosophy when it comes to falling in love. Everyone has their faults. Everyone has their challenges. Everyone has opportunities to learn and be a better person. But if you see those traits first, the person you love will always come second. Instead, work hard to love the person first by accepting and embracing everything about them. That way, when you say your vows, "For better or for worse" won't be hard to live up to.
Below, photos from Tammy and Cameron's Vegas honeymoon by Edi Photography.