Julie Hensler-Cullen
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Short Time in Wheelchair Led to Advocacy for Those With Disabilities

By on 12/06/2021
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One in an ongoing series

She has been called the “equalizer” and the “heart and soul” of MossRehab’s advocacy programs. She is Julie Hensler-Cullen, MSN, RN, and her mission on behalf of inclusiveness and accessibility for persons with disabilities was informed, in part, by her own brief experience in a wheelchair.

Hensler-Cullen was pregnant and completing her graduate program at LaSalle University when she had a catastrophic car accident. She was hospitalized for more than a month with severe injuries, including a fractured pelvis.

After the 1994 accident, Hensler-Cullen spent several months using a wheelchair or a walker as mobility aids.

It gave her some insight into what people who use wheelchairs experience. She cites, as a small example, being in an elevator with colleagues who were standing next to her wheelchair and talking over her head.

“The Greatest Advocate” for Inclusion

“They were engaged in conversations at eye level and didn’t see me,” she says. “Sometimes, persons who have a disability get excluded because people don’t know to think about the importance of inclusion.”

Hensler-Cullen thinks about it all the time.

“She is the greatest advocate for people with disabilities and MossRehab, ” says Alberto Esquenazi, MD, Chief Medical Officer at MossRehab. “She is the equalizer in terms of creating a world of accessibility for all.”

In her current role as Director of Quality and Education, Hensler-Cullen oversees quality, regulatory compliance and education, infection control and utilization review. She also has administrative responsibility for social workers and psychologists. 

But her transcendent mission is to educate and raise consciousness of staff and the public and remove obstacles to accessibility for persons with disabilities. She has promoted, among other programs, MossRehab’s involvement in a surfing event for persons with disabilities, and an annual exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art featuring artwork from MossRehab art therapy participants.

Teaching Respect With Humor

Hensler-Cullen also was the inspiration behind “It’s Just Respect,MossRehab’s Disability Etiquette program that includessix videos titled Disability Etiquette Gone Wrong. They’re vignettes narrated by persons who have the experience of living with a disability, who give advice on how to be respectful – often relying on humor to make their point.

One video, for instance, shows Rachel, a high school student who uses a power wheelchair, reacting to the fears of some of her peers that she’ll accidentally run into them or run over their toes.

“Do they think I go down the halls like a demolition derby driver?” she asks. Then she dramatizes the unfounded notion by whizzing down the school hallway at top speed, pretending to barrel into groups of students and knock them over.

“That one gets the most laughs,” says Hensler-Cullen. She praises the Corporate Communications team, which worked to create the series, for suggesting the videos use a tongue-in-cheek style.

The videos are gaining visibility and have been shown at local schools as well as at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the US Mint, the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Capital Grille restaurant, and to the beach patrol staff of Wildwood, NJ, among others.

Hensler-Cullen also has been instrumental in the adoption of a modernized accessibility icon that labels accessible parking spaces, doorways and bathrooms. The new version shows a figure in motion in a wheelchair rather than a stick figure sitting upright and passive. The City of Philadelphia has agreed to adopt the icon, as have some private businesses. 

Becoming a nurse was one of Hensler-Cullen’s lifelong dreams. She worked at Fitzgerald Mercy and Holy Redeemer Hospitals and then in pediatrics at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia before coming to MossRehab 31 years ago as Director of Nursing Education. She’s been at MossRehab ever since.

Her devotion to accessibility earned her praise in a leader’s assessment of her work in a formal evaluation: “Julie continues to be the heart and soul of MossRehab’s advocacy efforts.”

Hensler-Cullen’s mission has been informed by patients, an advisory board, her colleagues – and by her brief time in a wheelchair many years ago.

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