When Being Disabled Just Isn’t Enough! Wisconsin Ms. Wheelchair Pageant Winner Loses Crown

It appears that organizational and societal perception of disabilities are being challenged again, this time a little bit closer to home. Perhaps, as in any social movement, a few organizations’ and individuals’ views do not change as societies grow; they remain “frozen” in the past. Yet, it is always surprising to find such an organization or individual whose intention is to be part of the movement — one of the family. In this case, Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, a local chapter of Ms. Wheelchair America, is at the heart of an issue that has reverberated across the world over the past month, from Good Morning America, the Today Show, the Tonight Show, and major news networks, to numerous Internet blogs.

In 1972 a Columbus, Ohio physician, Dr. Philip K. Wood established Ms. Wheelchair America as a forum promoting the achievements, as well as the needs, of women experiencing mobility impairments. The program has been open to women between the ages of 21 and 60 with United States citizenship who use a scooter or wheelchair for daily mobility. Dr. Wood had devoted his career to the treatment and rehabilitation of individuals with functional impairments and was well aware of their talent, capabilities, determination and courage. Therefore, he hoped the program would continue to increase public awareness and disassemble stereotypes, so that all citizens would enjoy equal access to opportunities empowering them to lead more productive and meaningful lives. However, over the past few months, the organization’s actions have led to questions regarding whether Ms. Wheelchair America is straying from the founder’s vision.

Before entering the Wisconsin pageant, Janeal Lee, a resident of Appleton, said she was upfront during conversations with the Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin State Coordinator, Gina Hackel, about her ability to stand and walk. Lee was unsure how strictly the organization defined “uses a wheelchair [or scooter] for daily mobility.” A 30-year-old high school math teacher, Lee experiences the effects of limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. Although she uses a scooter as her primary means of mobility, she is able to stand and walk short distances in some situations. However, according to Lee, Hackel verified that she was eligible to participate. Lee then went on to be named Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2005.

At the end of February, the Appleton Post Crescent published an article highlighting Lee’s achievements along with a photo. But, much to the dismay of pageant officials, she was standing in her classroom. Judy Hoit, Ms. Wheelchair America’s treasurer, was quick to point out that candidates for the crown must “mostly be seen in the public using their wheelchairs or scooters. Otherwise you’ve got women who are in their wheelchairs all the time and they get offended if they see someone standing up. We can’t have title holders out there walking when they’re seen in the public.” Shortly after, Lee received a letter from Hackel stating that she was no longer eligible and would have to forfeit her crown and prizes. Specifically, Hackel’s letter stated her ineligibility stemmed from the fact that Lee does not always use her scooter in the community, had been photographed without a mobility device, and occasionally performs classroom activities without the aid of her scooter. Ms. Wheelchair America officials cite the pageant founders’ inclusion of a rule, which is a part of the national and Wisconsin guidelines that each contestant contractually agrees to, stating the winner must appear in her wheelchair or scooter when in public.

The rule and its application have raised concerns. First, does the rule unintentionally reinforce the stereotype that individuals using a mobility device are totally dependent on it? Second, does it impede the promotion of diversity— that each person experiences and is impacted by disability a little bit differently? Third, does the rule unintentionally restrict freedom of individuality — the freedom to be “who you are?” On the other hand, the organization has an image to protect—that it serves women using wheelchairs and scooters. The issue is tricky. Sadly, the way the issue was handled has likely caused much more damage to the organization’s image than the original issue itself could have.

Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 1st runner-up Michelle Kearney refused the crown in support of Lee. In March, Lee’s sister, Sharon Spring, was named Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota 2005. Spring is a 26-year-old kindergarten classroom paraprofessional who also uses a wheelchair as her primary means of mobility due to muscular dystrophy. In support of her sister, she resigned her title early last month. That same day, Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota State Coordinator (and Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota 2003), Jen Onsum, also resigned from her duties. Onsum works as a freelance web designer and online promotions manager for the entertainment industry and is studying public relations and English at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Each of these women exhibits the realistic challenges of living with disability while simultaneously promoting tremendous ability — abilities greatly overshadowing disabilities.

“Recently, Lee has been named Miss disAbility International, the charter titleholder of a new competition being launched in response to the furor over the Ms. Wheelchair dispute by Oklahoma City-based World Association of Persons with Disabilities (WAPD),” said George Kerford. Kerford is the chairman emeritus for WAPD. The 19-year-old Association had called for the title to be reinstated, saying dethroning Lee sent a bad message.

Kenford said the new titles bestowed to Lee and the group’s Mr. disAbility International Tom Mecke of San Antonio were mostly symbolic. Future winners will go through a competition that will be open to people experiencing mental or physical challenges. “We are focusing on abilities,” he said.

Lee said she was excited about her new title, down to the lowercase ‘d’ and uppercase ‘A.’ “It tells you the focus of the program is on people’s abilities and I think that is excellent,” she said.