Here she comes, Ms. Wheelchair America
By: Dana Schwartz
Put aside your preconceived notions about the tiara and sash. While the winners still sport these emblems, the journey they take to earn them is quite different than the Miss America ladies. Unlike that nationally televised pageant, The Ms. Wheelchair America judges focus on different criteria. These women are not judged based on their looks, but rather their ambition to advocate for a specific cause. Women from all over the country, ages 21-60, who use wheelchairs as their primary mode of transportation, come together once a year to compete in the national pageant.
In order to qualify for nationals, each woman must first win the state title, or if their state does not yet have a pageant, they may apply as an independent delegate. The requirements to participate include raising money for your pageant entry, preparing a platform speech on a topic of their choice, as well as preparing a presentation board. The week at nationals consists of several interviewing sessions with judges, but it is also a memorable week for the contestants who are able to attend seminars, dances, all-accessible parks and spend time with other women who can relate to them in ways that many able-bodied women cannot.
Anything is possible
Erika Bogan described the week of nationals as her most cherished memory of the year. "Each girl was so amazing in her own way and very unique and had overcome so many different obstacles to get to that point. It was a learning experience yet a humbling experience." Erika went on to explain that this competition is unlike many others in the sense that there is camaraderie among the girls and everyone hopes the best for the girls sitting next to them. The cattiness that may be evident in other pageants is simply non- existent, "There were girls that were crying just as hard as I was because they were so excited that I was crowned."
Erika's platform is anything is possible and she is a prime example of that mentality. At age 21 she was in a car accident that left her with a T11, T12 incomplete spinal cord injury. She has since used her situation to educate others. In addition to her duties as Ms. Wheelchair America, she models for Legawear and Colours Wheelchairs, and spends time raising her three beautiful daughters. Her platform is both a learning experience as well as a teachable experience because she first had to learn that anything was possible for herself. "I like to use the term differently-abled and not disabled. We're able, just in a different way." She credits the Ms. Wheelchair America organization with helping her realize who she is and giving her the confidence she needed.
For Erika, it's not about the crown or sash, it's about getting people to stop and listen. As the national titleholder, she is required to attend certain events such as the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, but she is encouraged to do as much as she can. Her events have ranged from surfing with our Life Rolls On's They Will Surf Again program, to speaking in Washington D.C. at the National Disabilities Institute. Erika has bittersweet feelings about passing on her title. "I'm excited to pass the title on because each one of us brings a different thing to the organization because of our different platforms and different passions, but I'll be sad to see it go."
A contender for the title
Her passion for music and concerts has led to her platform of line of sight. Certain venues put the wheelchair seating in places that severely limit the view of the stage. Even worse, some venues keep the wheelchair seating in the top row of a stadium, which limits sight and poses a danger if there were to be an emergency. Kristi has taken up her issues with these venues and has been denied access to other seats on many occasions. Kristi hopes to have a much larger platform to speak of these issues as Ms. Wheelchair America.
Disability as a prescription for empowerment
Not all states have a state pageant at this time, but that does not exclude residents of those states from getting involved. In 2005, Laurel Labdon wanted to participate in the pageant and was selected as the independent delegate from Massachusetts. Laurel's platform was, and still is: disability as a prescription for empowerment-- that you "can take your disability and use it to educate, advocate, motivate and inspire." Since her accident twenty years ago, Laurel's C-5, 6 level incomplete spinal cord injury has not stopped her from doing everything in her power to do each one of these things. "I've always thought that the best way to advocate isn't by doing anything fancy, by competing or anything," says Laurel, "but I believe the best way to advocate is to live your life and be out in public so its not jut a novelty when people see someone, especially a young person, in a wheelchair." While Laurel appreciates being called inspirational, she would like it to get to a point when doing everyday things in a wheelchair just seems normal.
As a believer of the "ripple effect," Laurel feels that if you can teach one person something, the ripple effect will send your message out into the universe and the people who need it will hopefully receive it. Following her term as Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts, Laurel was a finalist in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant and then went on to become the founder of the Massachusetts state program. She has testified in front of Congress about the importance of Medicare funding for power chairs, as well as both houses of the Massachusetts State Legislature on the embryonic stem cell research issue, and continues to serve as an advocate for countless disability issues.
While each woman comes prepared with her own unique message to the country, the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant itself is a message to everyone out there that a wheelchair is merely a mode of transportation, it does not limit what driven, and independent women can do. "You don't need to be a professional public speaker to get the message across," says Laurel. "You just have to be you. It may not win you a pageant but when it comes down to it the winner isn't the important part. The doing it and the trying to do it is the important part. And doing your best of course."
Follow the action at the Ms. Wheelchair 2011 Pageant on their blog.
Meet John Quinn, a wheelchair bodybuilder.
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