Next, it was time to address the identity-crushing experience of having a visible disability that had kept her in the shadows. No longer the shy, self-conscious girl of her youth, in 2006 at age 42 the auburn-haired dynamo with a melt-your-heart smile and sultry green eyes posed semi-nude for Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty – a highly-acclaimed visual arts exhibit that she co-created and produced with 10 photographers and 22 women with various disabilities to change public perception about beauty and disability. The exhibit was a fundraising event for the Center for Independent Living where she has been a board member for the past decade.

“It was the most empowering, liberating experience of my life. The first step in shedding my invisibility and in being a role model for others,” says Baer.

Although fiercely independent, daily life and work present challenges and mobility issues. Despite weekly injections of the biologic drug, Enbrel, and daily dosages of Voltaren to help reduce inflammation and keep the disease at bay, mornings can be painful. 

A Shared Passion

In 2009 Shelly found love. Planning to marry this year, she and her fiancé not only share the disease of arthritis but they share a passion for changing the way disabled people are viewed. 

Shelly also speaks to pediatric residents and medical students about body image, beauty, sexuality and dating for the disabled. She served on the planning committee for Ability Explosion 2010/11, a week-long symposium on Miami Beach to showcase the accomplishments of people with disabilities, and was among 11 women selected to receive the Red Cross Women’s Spectrum Award for her work with people with disabilities.

But, her greatest honor came last year when she spoke at the prestigious TEDx conference in Miami – the venerable nonprofit “Ideas Worth Spreading” speaker series founded in 1984. She spent months preparing her talk and videotaping her delivery, which, initially, was discouraging. “I hated how I looked and spoke, the gap between my teeth, the way I moved. It was hard to watch. But, the more I watched I came to realize, 'I'm not so bad.' 

Held September 13, 2011 in front of 500 people on the main stage of downtown Miami's New World Center, Shelly delivered her riveting six-minute talk, “The Beauty of Disability.” With her fiancé in the wings, family and friends in the audience, Shelly made her way into the spotlight. The little girl who had spent a lifetime in the shadows, who couldn't bear to see her reflection in the mirror, had come out. Big time.