- Associated Press - Saturday, August 9, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Ra’Shad Solomon is in a battle with cerebral palsy that seldom lets up, but these days he feels he’s winning more often than losing.

A lot of it comes from not letting his condition define who he is or what he hopes to become.

Solomon, 25, wants to help others with disabilities achieve the same kind of feeling. Through “Comfortable With Myself,” an organization he started last year, he’s reaching out to the disabled to offer encouragement.

Being comfortable with himself, Solomon freely admits, did not come easily.

“I had problems when I was growing up accepting who I am,” he said. The Jacksonville native has spent a lot of his life in a wheelchair, and he grew up with a sense that the wheelchair was all that many people saw.

He has had a total of nine surgeries on his legs, hips and back.

Pain is a constant. Depression occasionally overwhelmed him, largely because he didn’t see much potential for someone with his challenges. In junior high, he attempted suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs.

Solomon’s outlook began to change as a junior in high school. He took a fashion design class at Ed White and became interested in the fashion world. He saw dressing well as a way to gain acceptance, and maybe he was right. He got a “Best Dressed” award that year.

And he decided he wanted to become a model, or as he specifically puts it, “a model with disabilities.”

Though he hasn’t had much success, Solomon has held onto that dream. He’s recently found encouragement through the Beautiful Bodies competition at The Jacksonville Landing.

Contestants are asked to define beauty in an abstract way, said Jasmine Rhey, the event’s co-creator, in any four categories: art, fashion, fitness and dance.

“We came up with the concept because we wanted to change the concept of beauty,” Rhey said. “It’s an open-ended concept, giving contestants the freedom to create something that expresses how they feel beautiful.”

Solomon got a phone call from Max Sturdivant a week before the July 2 qualifying round, encouraging him to enter in the fashion category. Sturdivant, known as Dr. Fitness to Jacksonville radio listeners, was Solomon’s personal trainer for more than two years.

“I said, ‘I don’t think people in a wheelchair have ever done that before,’ ” Solomon said. “He said, ‘Then you can be the first.’?”

Solomon chose not to model for the qualifying round. Instead, he went onstage and talked about how beauty is not defined by your abilities. The presentation was a little short of 10 minutes, he said.

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