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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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Here she comes, Ms. Wheelchair America

By: Dana Schwartz

Here she comes, Ms. Wheelchair America

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.

The contestants use their crown and sash to gain attention and a larger platform to advocate to and educate the rest of the country on important issues that affect the nearly 5.6 million Americans living with paralysis. The Ms. Wheelchair America 2011 Pageant will take place during the week of August 9-15 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Twenty-eight contestants will come together this year to promote awareness of people living with disabilities and compete for the chance to travel the country and advocate for their cause.

Focusing on the right ideals

Erika Bogan, Ms. Wheelchair America 2010

Erika Bogan,
Ms. Wheelchair America 2010

"It's about who we are as women and how to be strong independent women in order to reach your dreams even when you have a physical limitation," says Erika Bogan, 28, Ms. Wheelchair 2010, "I know as a mom with three girls; that's what I want my girls to look at. I don't want them to think they won't get to a certain point if they don't look like a supermodel. It shouldn't be about that."

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

Kristi Allen, Ms. Wheelchair South Dakota

Kristi Allen,
Ms. Wheelchair South Dakota

One of the possible candidates to replace Erika as Ms. Wheelchair America is Kristi Allen, the current Ms. Wheelchair South Dakota. Kristi has been a complete T1 paraplegic since age 15 due to transverse myelitis, a condition resulting from inflammation of your spinal cord, but she has not let that stop her from getting out and making a difference.

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.

Laurel Labdon, Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2005

Laurel Labdon,
Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2005

"The easiest and most fun way to teach them is to become a part of that community and to make them realize. It's also a way to mainstream—because pageants are typically thought of ‘beauty pageants' it's amazing the attention you get wearing a tiara and a sash." Laurel says that strangers are way more likely to come up and ask who she is. "And then it gives me the opportunity to open the dialogue on exactly what the program is about and it gives a certain cache to the program." The publicity that her appearances as Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts brought her gave her a much larger stage to have her voice heard from and to help people.

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."

Learn more
Follow the action at the Ms. Wheelchair 2011 Pageant on their blog.  

Meet John Quinn, a wheelchair bodybuilder.

Tell us your story
Telling your story is one way to let anyone touched by paralysis know that they are not alone. We've created a place where you can share your journey for your benefit, and the benefit of others. Your story matters. Share it!

Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers AssociationCompanies that make elevators and lifts, stairway chairlifts and similar products.

ADA Accessibility GuidelinesADAAG is the design requirements for buildings and facilities as designated by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Learn all about the standards and guidelines with this website.

ADAPTADAPT has long history of organizing in the disability community and using civil disobedience and similar non- violent direct action tactics to achieve its goals. In 1983, as a project of the Atlantis Community in Denver, ADAPT began its national campaign for lifts on buses and access to public transit for people with disabilities. ADAPT started as American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit. For seven years ADAPT blocked buses in cities across the US to demonstrate the need for access to public transit. Many went to jail for the right to ride.

Advancing Independence: Modernizing Medicare and MedicaidAIMMM works to modernize Medicare and Medicaid in a way that both programs work in a far more coordinated and explicit fashion to further the goals set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act: Assuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities of all ages

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Advocacy & Disability Rights (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Accessible Exam Tables (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Umbilical Cord Blood Banking (PDF)

Council for Disability RightsOn national,state, and local levels, the Council for Disability Rights advances the rights of people with disabilities. The Council promotes public policy and legislation, public awareness through education, and provides information and referral services.

Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)Dept of Physical Medicine and Rehab Services at Baylor College of Medicine.

DisabilityRights.orgState-based advocacy programs. Click on the State you want.

DREDF Disability Rights Education and Defense FundFounded in 1979 by people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Inc. (DREDF) is a national law and policy center dedicated to protecting and advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities through legislation, litigation, advocacy, technical assistance, and education and training of attorneys, advocates, persons with disabilities, and parents of children with disabilities.

Mobile WomenArticles, resources, online forum for women with disabilities especially wheelchair users.

National Association of Protection and Advocacy SystemsThe Protection and Advocacy (P&As) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAPs) comprise the nationwide network of congressionally mandated, legally based disability-rights agencies. The National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, Inc. (NAPAS) is the voluntary national membership association of the P&As and CAPs and it assumes leadership in promoting and strengthening the role and performance of its members in providing quality legally based advocacy services.

New-Horizons.orgProvides a guide to buying a home for people with disabilities. The title is: Accessible Homes and Accessible Home Modifications.

U.S. Department of Justice’s Americans with Disabilities ActHome page provides info and technical assistance with the ADA.

Welner EnabledOffers the Welner Enabled Exam Table for the disabled and senior patient.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship areencouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.