Ms. Wheelchair pageant celebrates character

BY HAYLEY BRUCE | MARCH 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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When she was only 6 months old, a car accident left Jayde Henry paralyzed from the waist down.

She has used a wheelchair for 24 years.

But that hasn’t prevented the 29-year-old Des Moines resident from attending college, living independently, and working toward a career in fashion design.

Despite the strides, the Indianola native spent 11 frustrating years searching for a steady job in Des Moines.

Now, she’s looking to improve equality in the job market for people with disabilities. And to do that, she needs to become a pageant queen.

Henry will compete against three other women for a unique title: Ms. Wheelchair Iowa. The deadline to enter the contest was March 4, and the event will take place on March 26 in Iowa City.

The competition, which has taken place in Iowa since 1996, is based on achievements and accomplishments since the onset of the disability, said Judy Hoit, Ms. Wheelchair Iowa coordinator and an Iowa City native.

“It’s not a beauty contest, even though there’s a lot of beauty,” she said.

In this pageant, contestants vie for a crown based on the content of their character.

Designed for women ages 21 to 60 who use a wheelchair for 100 percent of their daily mobility, Hoit said the Ms. Wheelchair competition aims to select an accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for people with disabilities.

Near the end of the month, a panel of three judges will score the Iowa women based on an individual interview, an impromptu question exercise, and a speech that details the platform each candidate would promote if selected. Crowning will take place in Iowa City; the winners participate in the University of Iowa Homecoming parade each year.

While the winner goes on to the national Ms. Wheelchair competition in August in Grand Rapids, Mich., Hoit said the winner’s primary job is to advocate for the cause of her choice in her home state.

Though Henry is planning to focus her platform on either employment or health care, she said the main message is to be confident.

“Stay positive even though life will throw you some curve balls,” Henry said. “You have to be ready for them at any unexpected moment.”

Last year’s Ms. Wheelchair Iowa, Iowa State journalism student Samantha Edwards, based her platform speech on creating positive perceptions of the disabled in the media.

“I tend not to be known as normal,” the 23-year-old said. “I want to be known as a successful writer and a college student. So basically my message was just being yourself and to draw people to you and to make them to know you and not just your circumstance.”

Prior to winning Ms. Wheelchair Iowa, Edwards attended Marshalltown Community College, where she successfully advocated to have automatic doors installed on the college’s dorms and apartments.

UI Chief Diversity Officer Georgina Dodge said education efforts such as Ms. Wheelchair Iowa are key to improving public perception and accessibility.

“It shouldn’t just be contingent on the disabled community to do this outreach,” she said. “It really is contingent on all of us as educators, not just to children but to everybody.”

Though not all national competitors leave with a crown, Hoit said, they gain something even more valuable.

“It just empowers women, I think — even if they aren’t in [wheel]chairs — to see that there is a world of opportunities out there,” she said.

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