Most pageants — like Miss USA or Miss America — are primarily about beauty, popularity or talent. But there is a pageant that is all about raising awareness of the achievements of the disabled and reducing the architectural and attitudinal barriers that still impede their quality of life: the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant.
"This is not a beauty contest," says pageant judge Matt Kelly.
"I've judged beauty pageants before as part of the Miss USA program, where we were looking more at someone's physical beauty," he explains. "But this contest is really based on three things: their accomplishments, their communication skills and their self perceptions."
Kelly says the woman who took home the crown this year scored high on all three criteria.
Alana Wallace, 56, an educational consultant and mother of four adult children, has had post polio since the age of 5. She has been a life-long advocate for people with disabilities.
Wallace is the founder and artistic director of Dance Detour, Chicago's first professional physically integrated dance company. She is also a founding member of Bodies of Work, a disability arts and cultural festival.
"I just want people to know that people with disabilities are productive, talented and capable citizens and that we have so much to offer," Wallace says.
During her yearlong reign, Wallace will tour the country, advocating for fully accessible housing for the disabled.
She says that means more than just widening doorways or eliminating steps. "Many times we purchase condos or move into new homes and we find that while there are maybe turning areas, we can't reach our cabinets. A lot of our appliances are not accessible," she notes. "I support the universal design, which means that the home is going to be useable by anyone."
Although Alana Wallace wore the crown, other pageant contestants say they feel like winners as well.
Ms. Wheelchair Arkansas, Jennifer Briggers, 23, says the event was an opportunity for her to make friends and share her life experiences. "What I'm trying to share is that I've been independent and becoming more and more successful every day, even though I do have a disability," she says.
Briggers is working on her doctorate in psychology. Her mother, Delois Kitchens, who accompanied her to the pageant, says her daughter has always focused on her capabilities and lived her life on her own.
"I had another child, and I didn't treat her differently," she says. "He got a spanking, she got one when she was bad. We treated them the same. She never grew up feeling she was handicapped, I guess."
The annual Ms. Wheelchair America competition has always showcased the abilities, determination and courage of women in wheelchairs, according to contest president Robert Watson.
"They are awesome," he says. "Some have several degrees. Some have PhDs. Some people have come from acquired disability to this point, where they accepted their disability. They are just accomplished women."
Business consultant and author Judy Hoit was Ms. Wheelchair Iowa in 1996 and is still active in the program. She says it has helped raise public awareness of the abilities and needs of the disabled community. She says this year's competition is significant.
"We are celebrating the fact that we've been around for 35 years," she says. "One of the biggest thing is the education part of it because every time a person makes an appearance and meets people and tells them maybe transportation situations, employment challenges they have had in a wheelchair, every time they tell their stories or talk to a group, it's always an eye opener. People go, 'Oh, I never thought about that.'"
Autumn Grant says she got that reaction a lot over the past year, as Ms. Wheelchair America 2007. Grant says that although each Ms. Wheelchair chooses her own issue to highlight during her reign, the message is the same.
"I think mainly acceptance, for people to look at people with disabilities and realize although they have differing abilities, they are still people, and you can identify with on so many different levels," she says. "That's something we still need to work on both here and abroad, because there is still so much stigma attached to the disability. We need to get passed that."
Ms. Wheelchair America 2008, Alana Wallace, says she is excited about her new role as a national spokeswoman for the disabled community. She's looking forward to traveling, meeting the public, and speaking out — an example of what women in wheelchairs can achieve.