Fostering Powerful Women in Wheelchairs

The Ms. Wheelchair America program gives women with disabilities a platform for breaking down barriers and promoting important change

Article Highlights:
  • Annie Kennedy, senior vice president of advocacy, discusses the importance of the Ms. Wheelchair America program, which helps empower women with disabilities to serve as leaders within their local communities, states and nation.
  • Kennedy, who served as a judge for the Ms. Wheelchair Texas competition in Houston, discusses her experience with the 10 candidates, including three members of the MDA community who are highlighted in the article. 
by Annie Kennedy on July 1, 2013 - 9:07am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 3

Wanted: Articulate, dynamic, driven women with a strong vision for change in the world. Must be willing to break down barriers and connect with people of all backgrounds. Public speaking and statewide travel required. Candidates will be provided with expert training in handling media inquiries, optimizing social media networking, public speaking, current legislative and public policy trends, self-advocacy, platform messaging, fundraising and much more.

Any guesses what this position is? State senator? Governor? U.S. senator?

While this easily could be the job description for a member of Congress, I am actually describing the role of the state Ms. Wheelchair candidates. Yes, that’s right. Not what most people first think of when they think of the “Ms. Anything” platforms, but this is one stage for which no toddlers in their tiaras or Honey-Boo-Anyone’s need apply. The Ms. Wheelchair America program seeks to harness the energy and passions of women in their prime, and provide them with the tools needed to serve as leaders within their states and the nation.

In April, at the invitation of my friend and MDA National Task Force Member Angela Wrigglesworth, I had the distinct honor of serving as one of three judges for the Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2013 competition in Houston. Angela, an elementary school teacher who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), founded the Ms. Wheelchair Texas Foundation and currently serves as its executive director.

The 10 women competing for the title this year came from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives, had traveled very different life journeys before arriving at this competition weekend, and had very different visions for the Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2013 platform based upon their experiences with mobility disabilities. Some of these women had congenital disorders, some had progressive muscle diseases, others had disabilities resulting from an incident or injury. There was no “mold” to fit into.

Despite their individual differences, what these beautiful women all shared was a commitment to overcoming the personal challenges in their lives and transforming them into catalysts for community impact.

The weekend itself included professional trainings in: public speaking; interacting with the media; leveraging social media, community outreach, state and federal resource eligibility; legislative and public policy issues of relevance to the disability community; creating communities of personal support; and more. Candidates also had the opportunity to meet with former Ms. Wheelchair titleholders and learn about their experiences and journeys, receive pointers on platform messaging, and be formally connected with mentors. And, of course, there was time reserved for socializing and pampering.

During one of the sessions I had the privilege of attending, participants discussed ways they each had built their personal support systems. When these successful women were asked how they had created their strong networks, they immediately replied, “I joined Ms. Wheelchair Texas — it’s an amazing sisterhood!” The tag line for Ms. Wheelchair Texas says it all: Empowering Women in the Community. But Texas is just one of the many state Ms. Wheelchair programs in the U.S. that are affiliated with the national Ms. Wheelchair America program. State Ms. Wheelchair titleholders compete each summer for the honor of Ms. Wheelchair America; the Ms. Wheelchair America 2013 competition is being hosted by Texas and will be held in Houston in July.

The Ms. Wheelchair America program was established in 1972 by an Ohio physician as a forum for the promotion of the achievements of people with mobility impairments, as well as a mechanism to raise much-needed awareness around the unmet needs of the community. The program is a nonprofit, staffed by volunteers nationwide. Titleholders work year-round to facilitate partnerships with like-minded organizations, mentor young people with and without disabilities, and foster change.

Three of the competitors at the 2013 Ms. Wheelchair Texas competition also were members of the MDA community, and will be partnering with our local and national MDA communities as they work to implement their respective platforms throughout this coming year. I’d like to introduce them:

Sorayda Rivera
Platform: Utilizing Social Media to Connect People with Disabilities to Critical Community Resources

Self-described as a “MexiCAN, not a Mexi-CAN’T,” Sory is now a vivacious 25-year-old woman who was diagnosed with SMA at the age of 3, and who works to break down barriers for herself and others everywhere she goes. Sory works for an accessible van company and strives to one day own her own company — a goal she will surely achieve.



Dana Carpenter
Platform: There’s No Place Like Home: Expanding Residential Options for People with Disabilities

A fraternal twin, Dana was diagnosed with SMA at about age 1 when her mother noticed that she wasn’t meeting the same motor milestones as her twin sister (Dana’s twin sister does not have SMA).

Now a successful 36-year-old woman from a long line of strong independent women, she has dedicated thousands of hours to initiatives and organizations that impact housing policy. Dana is a phenom.


Skylar Conover
Platform: Altering Attitudes to Conquer Change

Only 23 years old, Skylar already has accomplished so much that after a brief encounter with her it’s hard not to come away challenged to do more in one’s own life. While she reflects that her diagnosis with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) at the age of 15 took a while to come to terms with, she soon embraced the fact that she was never going to let her disability define her, but rather, that she wanted to redefine the world through her disability. And that is exactly what she is doing. Currently pursuing a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling so that she can support others with disabilities, her roles within our MDA community and the Ms. Wheelchair Texas community already have provided her with many opportunities to empower others — and what a tremendous difference she is making.

Participating in the Ms. Wheelchair program in such an integral way was indeed an honor for me this year, but it also was an opportunity for me to give something back to the program. You see, I was one of those “schoolchildren without disabilities” who was impacted by the awareness raised by a Ms. Wheelchair Maryland titleholder during an elementary school assembly decades ago. While I don’t recall her name, I remember her story and her message and her power. And most importantly, the seed that she planted in me was long-lasting and empowered me. What a privilege it was to be a part of the trainings and presentations offered to the next generation of women who are dedicating themselves to impacting communities throughout the nation.

I encourage all female members of our MDA community between the ages of 21 and 60 who use a wheelchair to consider getting involved in your state Ms. Wheelchair competition; many of the strongest Ms. Wheelchair contestants have been former MDA state goodwill ambassadors. Former Ms. Wheelchair titleholders have gone on to work in prominent positions on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., run research departments at a world-renowned cancer center and serve as directors of disability offices at major universities. One distinguished former titleholder currently serves as the disability commissioner for the city of Boston.

To learn more about Ms. Wheelchair America or the Ms. Wheelchair program in your state, visit the Ms. Wheelchair America website, and if your travels take you to Houston between July 15 and 21, you can see the empowerment firsthand as Ms. Wheelchair America is named.

Empowering women in the community, indeed.

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