The acting bug bit Kathleen Traylor hard in junior high when she saw a production of “The Music Man” performed by disabled students at her school in Los Angeles.

“Ten minutes into the show, I forgot that everyone had a disability,” Traylor, now 45, told Beliefnet. “And I wanted to do that.”

She performed in as many shows as possible during high school, but after graduation discovered that directors rarely knew what to do with an actor, like Traylor, in a wheelchair.

Traylor was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS), a set of congenital birth defects. Both of her legs were malformed and missing bones, and a major nerve was in a web that kept her right left leg at a 90-degree angle. Her left leg was amputated when she was nine months old, and her right leg when she was 16.

She also has scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and has had her spine permanently fused with metal rods. Her hips and pelvis are malformed, and she has an artificial hip on her left side. Her heart is on the right side of her body and is turned around, but “functions fine,” she says.

These severe challenges have not slowed her down. In 1989, Traylor and some former classmates formed their own theater group--the Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League, or PHAMALy Theater. All of the actors are disabled in some way.

Based in Denver, the group has mounted well-received musicals for 17 years. Traylor has wheeled herself through numerous roles, including Aunt Em in “The Wiz” and one half of a pair of Siamese twins in “Sideshow.” She has been nominated for a number of theatrical awards.

Amy Crates, the Beliefnet reader who nominated Traylor for Most Inspiring Person, described her as a “beacon of light to the rest of us mere mortals.”

“I'm not my disability,” Traylor insists. “But it has been instrumental in shaping the person I am today. I have had experiences and challenges that have influenced my character and my personality.”

Her hero, she says, was her mother, who gave birth to Kathleen when she was 17.  Faced with a severely malformed infant, “she never questioned how she was going to handle all the future surgeries or challenges that life was now going to hold for her,” Traylor said. “She only wanted to know if she could breast-feed me.”

Today, Traylor continues to perform and has traveled to local elementary schools to speak to children about bullying those who are “different.” In this year’s production of “Our Town,” art will imitate life when she plays Mrs. Gibbs, and her son Daniel, who is hearing impaired, playd young George Gibbs. But her real family is much larger.

“I feel as though every one of the actors are my children,” Traylor said. “I'm so proud of what we've accomplished.”

Click here to read more about PHAMALy Theater. To learn about Amniotic Band Syndrome, click here.

View 2006 nominees' photo gallery.

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