Last week, Ms. Wheelchair 2010 was crowned. I can’t tell you how much I hate this. Supposedly, this is not a beauty pageant, but “a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities.” According to the Ms. Wheelchair America, Inc. website. Ahem.
That sounds really noble, doesn’t it? But when you strip it down, it’s still a competition of who is the best woman, who gets to wear the pretty sashes and tiara. You can pretty it up with platitudes about providing “an opportunity for women of achievement who happen to be wheelchair users to successfully educate and advocate for the more than 52 million Americans living with disabilities” but at the end of the day, it still reminds me of JonBenet Ramsey in a wheelchair.
I know this is supposed to be empowering, but it just makes me cringe. I used a wheelchair for the better part of six months. I was supposed to be a quadriplegic for life and without a few miracles, I probably still would be. I still have power wheelchair sitting in my den. The battery is dead, but it’s there, in case I ever need it again, a possibility that can’t be ruled out. I feel guilty speaking for those who use wheelchairs because I can walk now. However, I do have some internal organs that are still paralyzed and my nervous system will never fully recover from the paralysis.
On Saturday, it will be four and a half years since the incident that caused the paralysis, but it feels like hours, days or weeks ago, not years. I still wake up every day and expect to not be able to move my arms or legs. I feel like I don’t have a right to criticize this competition but I know that if I were still using a wheelchair today, I would have the same reaction to this pageant.
On the other hand, I don’t want to criticize the women who have taken part in the pageant. Autumn Grant, who was Ms. Wheelchair America 2007, told disaboom.com:
“I realized that just because the contest had the words ‘Ms.’ and ‘pageant’ before and after it, it wasn’t a beauty pageant,” says Autumn. “I saw it as a great opportunity to get my ideas and voice out there for myself and others with disabilities.”
This year’s winner, Erika Bogan, became paralyzed from the knees down seven years ago in a domestic violence-related car accident. In an interview with News 14 Carolina, she said,
“This wheelchair is such a blessing to me, and being in the accident I was in was a blessing,” she explained. “I wouldn’t be where I am and I definitely wouldn’t be who I am if it wouldn’t have ever happened… My story was basically my platform for nationals, and [that story is:] anything’s possible.”
It takes an enormous amount of courage to simply to tell one’s story and I applaud Ms. Bogan for that. I am also the first person to applaud her for being an advocate for other women with disabilities and victims of domestic violence. I love that.
I don’t want to tear these women down. They’ve been through so much in their lives. If our positions were reversed (I was in the pageant reading this blog post), I would feel so hurt and angry. But I hate the pageant concept. There’s just got to be a better way for women living with paralysis and other related disabilities to advocate for and empower each other.