Alumni of Distinction: Maggie Winston

by Matt Jardin  |   

Maggie Winston
2022 Alumni Humanitarian award recipient Maggie Winston, A.A. General Program ’13, B.A. Psychology ’15, program director at Independent Living Center. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Winston)

Maggie Winston, UAA Center for Human Development adjunct faculty, is a self advocate and lifelong Alaskan that lives in Kenai. She is a Systems Advocate and Transition Specialist at the Independent Living Center in Soldotna, and has a fiery passion for disability policy and advocacy. She has a BA in psychology from UAA and is a former LEND Advanced Medium Term Trainee. She is involved with several advocacy groups including Key Coalition, Peer Power, Shared Vision for the Developmental Disability System in Alaska, and is the current Chair for the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education. Winston will receive the 2022 Alumni Humanitarian award at the Alumni of Distinction Celebration Banquet on March 31 at Lucy Cuddy Hall.

One morning in 2005, psychology alumna Maggie Winston — then a 21-year-old hairdresser and mother of twin boys living in Kenai — woke up feeling cramps between her shoulder blades. 

Within an hour, she couldn’t walk. When she arrived at the emergency room, she was  medevaced to Anchorage where she was diagnosed with idiopathic transverse myelitis, a rare condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the spinal cord, leaving Winston without the use of her arms or legs. 

After spending months in the hospital on a ventilator, Winston returned home to find the real fight waiting for her: her twins’ father was seeking full custody of their children. However, thanks to the Disability Law Center of Alaska, she won that fight with 50-50 custody, as well as a new purpose. 

“Having to fight for what was most meaningful to me when I was directly faced with discrimination because of my disability was what made me an advocate,” said Winston. “Having that groundwork already laid with legislation so many years ago that I didn’t even know I would need was so empowering. And now I get to continue that work for other people with disabilities and ensure they learn self advocacy so they can express self determination.”

Equipped with a wheelchair drivable via a chin-operated joystick and a rotating caregiver staff of six, Winston relied on the Independent Living Center (ILC) in Kenai to learn how to live independently and access her community. 

But it wasn’t long before Winston joined ILC in a leadership capacity, first as a volunteer on the board of directors in 2012, then as a systems advocate in 2016, next as health program manager for senior and disability services in 2020, and most recently as director for independent living programs in 2022.

Winston’s innate people skills go a long way toward her advocacy work, which is complemented by her understanding of medical models learned during her psychology curriculum.

“Especially in the disabilities world, it helps to have that education in not just disability, but the medicalized limitations, the psychopathy, the way individuals are looked at for mental health,” said Winston. “That background helps to see things from a perspective that views people not as medical patients that need to be fixed, but that we all are humans with neurodivergence that are living in a limiting society.”

In addition to her work with ILC and other boards, councils and nonprofits, Winston is an adjunct professor at UAA with the Alaska LEND Without Walls program. Having gone through LEND herself as a fellow in 2017, Winston provides interdisciplinary graduate training to people working in health care and related fields who might service those who have developmental disabilities.

Even her non-advocacy work is still rooted in advocacy. During her early days on the ILC board, Winston illustrated the book Slugs Forever! by author Marianne Schlegelmilch, the proceeds of which benefit ILC. She also writes the blog Pretty Wheelchair Girl and is exploring new ways to share her story through podcasting and comedy.  

“Discrimination is still very present,” said Winston. “The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, but there are still struggles with people accessing their communities, people accessing services, people just being able to access the store or the bathroom. Really the only thing that makes a difference is making a fuss, and I want to continue finding creative ways to show that disabilities are not something to be feared and that it can be pretty fabulous sometimes.”


This story originally appeared in the UAA Green and Gold News.