Silver Lining for Dethroned Ms. Wheelchair

I always enjoy finding examples highlighting the potential treasure hidden within adversity—how, in the end, we can fairly easily salvage some benefit among the loss. Last month, we reported that 30-year-old math teacher, Ms. Janeal Lee of Appleton WI, was asked to forfeit her crown and prizes only months after being named Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2005.

The losses included opportunities to become a greater advocate, mentor, and spokesperson for individuals experiencing disability. Other likely effects included personal discomfort and confusion being in the national and international media spotlight, as well as the subject of some ridicule, because of the events. Frustration may have also been experienced while asserting moral and ethical beliefs in the face of opposition.

Initially, these events were viewed as very unfortunate. Now, in hindsight, we understand these events have provided tremendous opportunities.

For example, the opportunity to discuss “diversity within diversity.” We often talk about similarities and differences between individuals experiencing disabilities and individuals who do not experience disability; possibly making “diversity” appear almost black-and-white. You experience disability or you do not. You are part of the community or you are not.

But, what about the differences among individuals with disabilities? As adaptive technology, medical advancements, policies, and attitudes more effectively minimize particular effects of disability, how will society define disability? Heck, how will the disability community define itself?!?

At times, some circles have defined disability as a set of limitations hindering a person’s ability to locate gainful employment. Then, independent living services, assistive technology, special transportation services, and so on helped minimize the impact of, and therefore overcome, some significant limitations to employment. So, the definition of disability evolves; it becomes a broader spectrum of gray.
Attitudes must adjust. Some of the most interesting comments coming to mind include, “Why can’t you [insert task]? I know a person with a disability who CAN do that; why can’t YOU?” Or, “I know you can’t [insert task]… because I know a person with a disability who can’t do that.” Bottom line: disability describes a general set of potential circumstances that May or May Not significantly impacts Some or All activities of life. The impact of disability on one’s performance of a given activity may vary greatly from one individual to another, even though they may share a particular diagnosis, depending on the actions required, learned “tricks” (i.e., innovative techniques), assistive tools available, and so on. INDIVIDUALITY is the key determinant.

Aside from sparking social discussion, several other positive outcomes of the “dethroning” can be identified. Ms. Lee has an even greater opportunity to advocate, mentor, and speak on behalf of individuals with disabilities because of her experiences, courage, public recognition, and as the first ever Miss disAbility International. Many possibilities and major responsibility abound!

“And,” you may query, “what about those forfeited prizes?” Well, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported earlier this month that Great American Financial Resources, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based insurance company, held a surprise school assembly for Lee during which they presented her with a tiara, flowers, a sash reading “Our Queen,” and gifts identical to those she earlier forfeited: a new royal blue scooter, Tiffany pearl earrings plus a two-night resort stay.

In addition, Great American gave each Kaukauna High School class $1,300 as a thank you for the generosity they showed in fundraising to help finance Lee’s previously planned trip to the national pageant. The funds will now go toward a scholarship for a student with a disability.

The Post-Crescent went on to say Lee was overwhelmed and a little shocked. She later described how all the media attention and the turn of events in recent weeks has given her an “opportunity to speak up for disability awareness on a much larger scale than I ever imagined.”