Editor’s Note: Born with spina bifida, Kim Brown has been a full-time wheelchair user since the 5th grade. After earning two master’s degrees and a successful career teaching in Chicago Public Schools for nearly two decades, opportunity knocked in 2012 when she was named Ms. Wheelchair Illinois. During her reign, she was invited to speak at a charity golf outing put on by Commonwealth Edison. Leaving a big impression on her audience that day, the largest utility provider in the state offered her a job as a senior business analyst. Today, while honing her leadership skills at the workplace, she also happily uses them as the Illinois state coordinator for the Ms. Wheelchair America Organization to help new candidates and titleholders become a voice for the wheelchair community.
My Reign as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois America
In 2012, my physical therapist introduced me to someone who was recruiting wheelchair users to become advocates for persons with disabilities through the Ms. Wheelchair Illinois program. I thought hard about it and decided it was the right time to share my story, so I registered for the competition. To run, you have to present a platform, and mine was pushing for changes in state legislation that affect wheelchair users and focusing on disability awareness.
I ended up winning, and as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois, I had a great opportunity to go down to our Capitol in Springfield to lobby for wheelchair reform and fight for changes in Medicare and Medicaid alongside three major wheelchair companies located in the state. At that time, it took up to three months to get basic wheelchair repairs done, and we pushed to reduce that. Changes have been made since then, but there is still a lot of work to do. It saddens me that our legislators don’t understand the importance of our equipment.
My reign as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois was one of the best years of my life.
I got to meet so many different people. Unfortunately, I wasn’t crowned Ms. Wheelchair America, but I did win the People’s Choice award. Before the competition, people go online and vote for their favorite candidate for a $1 donation. I found out at nationals that I had won that award!
What Is Ms. Wheelchair America?
The Ms. Wheelchair America organization is completely volunteer based.
It’s important to note that it is not a beauty pageant; it’s an advocacy pageant.
The competition is a weeklong process where contestants have multiple interviews with judges to talk about their chosen platform and what they would do as Ms. Wheelchair America.
Editor’s Note: Ms. Wheelchair America’s mission as stated on their website mswheelchairamerica.org is:
“The mission of Ms. Wheelchair America is to provide an opportunity of achievement for women who happen to be wheelchair users to successfully educate and advocate for the more than 54 million Americans living with disabilities. Unlike traditional beauty pageants, Ms. Wheelchair America is not a contest to select the most attractive individual. It is instead a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities. The selected representative must be able to communicate both the needs and the accomplishments of her constituency to the general public, the business community and the legislature.”
For more information on who is eligible to participate and how candidates are judged, see the below brochure or contact your state coordinator. If your state does not participate, there may still be an opportunity for you to run as an independent delegate. Contact email@example.com for more information.
Check out the Ms. Wheelchair America brochure HERE.
My Current Involvement With Ms. Wheelchair America
In 2015, I took over as the coordinator for the state of Illinois. My responsibilities include heading the fundraising efforts and hosting the state pageant, which is coming up on October 21, 2017. I’m very fortunate that Commonwealth Edison, my employer, is sponsoring the Ms. Wheelchair Illinois America pageant this year. They really embrace diversity and inclusion, so we are grateful to have them on board.
It is also my job to guide Ms. Wheelchair Illinois during her reign, which includes helping her with appearances and assisting her with fundraising, so she can compete at nationals. The entry fee costs $2000, which includes lodging and meals for the contestant and a companion for the week, so raising money to compete takes a lot of work.
What Does Ms. Wheelchair America Do?
Any appearances Ms. Wheelchair America does throughout her reign are based on her platform. If she’s looking to educate, she might go speak at schools. If she’s looking for legislative changes, she might try to work with congress people. If she’s advocating for employment rights, she’ll go into various companies and talk about hiring persons with disabilities. It all depends on her platform.
For the state of Illinois, we do our big push to recruit women at Abilities Expo Chicago. We also promote the pageant on Facebook, by word of mouth, and on the Ms. Wheelchair America website. We’re always looking to get more states involved because we’re only at around 28 currently.
When I was running, I was on Fox News and was able to spread the word about the program before I went to nationals. Our current Ms. Illinois was also on a local news channel before heading to nationals last month.
Competing gives you the chance to be a voice for people with disabilities in your state. This is not about outer beauty. It’s about advocating for and bringing about change.
If you are passionate about something, I would encourage you to compete. If you’re an Illinois resident, I will be there along the way to help you!
Editor’s Note: Anyone women residing in Illinois who wish to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair Illinois pageant may contact Kim Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org. She may also be contacted for information on volunteering and donating to the program.
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background including experience in marketing research at American Express, business operations and client relations with 601am, travel and culinary writing with VegDining, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy is excited to get back into writing, something she’s adored since childhood, and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. On top of her work with Wheel:Life, she also teaches students learning English as a second language, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!
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