Saturday a new Ms. Wheelchair New York was crowned – the 15th Ms. Wheelchair New York! It doesn’t seem like a year has passed since I wrote this post (my second post ever!) last September. As it always is each year, pageant day was an amazing day full of laughter, music, fashion, tears and love. This year we were honored to host the #RockItOnWheels fashion show featuring the designs of the amazingly talented and generous Timothy Westbrook. You may have seen him on season 12 of Project Runway if, unlike me, you have cable television and actually watch television other than PBS. Now that I know who he is, I will brag about him forever!
In case you don’t know, Ms. Wheelchair New York is an affiliate of the Ms. Wheelchair America (MWA) organization. MWA and the state affiliates are NOT beauty pageants. The organization exists to provide opportunities for women of achievement who use wheelchairs to educate and advocate for people with disabilities. Contestants are judged on their accomplishments, advocacy efforts, self-perception and communication skills.
I have been involved with Ms. Wheelchair New York since 2001, when I read an article about the late Nicki Ard, who was then the reigning Ms. Wheelchair America. More than one friend told me I should consider applying to MWA. I thought about it but never called until my best friend said she would nominate me herself if I continued to procrastinate.
I called. I applied. I was accepted as an Independent Delegate since New York did not have a state program. This meant I could attend MWA 2002 as Ms. Wheelchair New York 2001 (yes – I am a former titleholder) and would then become the State Coordinator for Ms. Wheelchair New York. As Coordinator, I would assume responsibility for holding annual events in my state to select future titleholders.
Throughout my life, there have been key moments I knew were critical as they were happening. These moments are turning points. Life is changed from this instant forward; like the day I learned I would be an exchange student, or the day I learned I would never walk again.
The minute I rolled into the contestant orientation the first night at MWA back in July 2001 was one of those moments. I knew my life would be forever divided into years before Ms. Wheelchair and years since Ms. Wheelchair. To say it was a week which changed my life simplifies it and does not capture the true impact on my world.
I returned to New York and started working on hosting my first pageant as State Coordinator. I kept going, serving as State Coordinator for eleven years. I was elected to the MWA Board of Directors for eight of those years and New York hosted the national pageant in 2005. I have volunteered as a judge at pageants in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Nebraska.
I never considered myself a “pageant person” but looking back at my experiences, it is easy to see how someone might get that impression of me. Including my first pageant as a contestant, I have attended a total of thirty state and national Ms. Wheelchair pageants since 2001.
My involvement with MWA and the New York program has never been about me. It has always been about the other women who participate. I have remained involved because I feel driven to encourage peer networks for other women with disabilities.
As a child, I had one close friend who also had a neuromuscular disease. Jen was my peer, the only person I felt truly understood what it was like to live with muscles which slowly stopped working over time. I did not know any adults with physical disabilities. The only adult with a visible mobility impairment I knew of who was living life as a “normal person” (that’s what I said back then) was world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. I never had an adult with a disability to serve as mentor until I was in college.
Today there are more mentoring programs for teens and young adults with disabilities than there were when I was in college. Thanks to changing opportunities brought about by the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities have more opportunities to access their community. This does not mean everyone has a peer network of other people with disabilities they can turn to.
I know this because Saturday someone at the pageant told me how good it was to be around other wheelchair users because he never sees another wheelchair user in his rural Adirondack town.
I know this because last year a contestant told me she had never been in a room with so many other wheelchair users before in her life. She was 34 years old.
I know this because until I joined the Ms. Wheelchair family, I never had a network of other strong, professional, optimistic, energetic women to turn to whenever I had a question, issue or concern. I never had a peer to call when I was facing discrimination from an employer. I never had a fellow “chick in a chair” who understood exactly how it felt and would cry with me when I fell for yet another man who told me he just couldn’t “handle the chair” when he broke up with me.
When I accepted the role of Ms. Wheelchair New York 2001, I knew I was making a commitment which would endure. I honored my commitment and continue to volunteer because I have witnessed the personal growth in the women who have participated in our state and national programs. I don’t have children, and will never be a mother. But the women who served as titleholders while I was Coordinator are “my gals.” I celebrate their accomplishments like a proud parent, knowing I played a small part in offering them an amazing opportunity which they may not have otherwise discovered. I cheer them on, brag about their news, and encourage them when they are facing challenges.
While Ms. Wheelchair New York has never been about me, Saturday I was struck with emotion during the fashion show as I considered my role in bringing this network to my home state. Our fifteen – FIFTEEN! – titleholders and the dozens of women who have participated in our annual pageants have joined a sisterhood I helped create. If I had not said yes and applied to MWA in 2001, there would not have been an event yesterday, or last year, or any year prior. Of course, someone else would have eventually started the program in New York. But then “my gals” wouldn’t be my friends, and my life would be bereft of the joy and strength they bring to my world. And “my gals” would not have had the opportunity to spend a year telling their stories, advocating for their platforms, attending MWA and making life-long friends with their fellow sister titleholders.
The ripples of our individual actions echo beyond what we can envision when we make simple movements. I am a stronger advocate because I have “sisters” in wheels alongside me. When I speak to elected representatives or business leaders, I speak for all of us, knowing we are relying on each other in our efforts to fight for equality. When I encourage a young woman to pursue her goals, I am offering her the peer support which has sustained me. When I listen to their stories of adversity and success, I am validating their struggles and reminding them they are not alone in their journey.
Saturday during the #RockItOnWheels fashion show, I watched Mariah, a young woman who is counting the months until she is old enough to participate in the pageant, dance and laugh as she wheeled across the stage. Her enthusiasm drew the loudest applause from the audience, who were captivated by her energy and presence. I got emotional as I watched her beaming from the stage, reveling in the moment. I realized I continue to remain involved in Ms. Wheelchair for Mariah and all the other young women who use wheelchairs.
We are paving the way for them to raise their own unique voices, to tell their own individual stories. We give them a platform and a microphone and watch them fly. It is a brilliant gift and I am blessed to have watched so many women soar and achieve great things.
Congratulations to all who participated in this year’s Ms. Wheelchair New York pageant: Theresa Mcintosh, Nancy Nydam, Yesenia Torres and the new Ms. Wheelchair New York 2016, Jessica De La Rosa. Welcome to the Ms. Wheelchair New York family. You are all winners and I look forward to watching all you accomplish!