Mirror/Mirror Episodes

Young Women Compete For Ms. Wheelchair America

It's a pageant with a purpose. These inspiring young women seek to motivate and educate while they compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.

Ms. Wheelchair America isn't just a beauty contest, says Jennifer Adams, one of the contestants, Ms. Wheelchair Washington.

"It is an advocacy program and so the winner is chosen on whoever can be the best advocate for people of all disabilities," says Jennifer.

This year, twenty-eight women are competing, representing their home states, but also the more than 50-million Americans with disabilities. Each one has a story to share and a platform to promote.

"As you can see most of us do not have bikini-ready bodies& It's not a smile on our face and how our makeup is," says Haley Cornelius, Ms. Wheelchair Texas.

Twelve years ago, Haley was injured in a boating accident.

"The first few years were pretty rough. Learning how not to be so insecure because before injury I was a huge athlete," says Haley. "All I knew was sports, practices, going to games and training. So, it was a whole new life of, 'Well, what am I going to be good at now?'"

It took a lot of time, but today, Haley's made remarkable progress.

"I get asked all the time, 'Where's your caregiver?' I don't have one. I live alone. I drive everywhere. I work. I go grocery shopping. So, I am probably as independent as you can get," she says.

Her platform is to create legislative and attitudinal change about disabilities.

"Don't be scared to be like, 'Hey, guess what? Why are you in a wheelchair?' And we'll tell you. We're very comfortable with ourselves," says Haley.

Linh Huynh, who represents her home state of Michigan, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy while she was still in the womb.

"I want people to know that this wheelchair doesn't bind me. It doesn't define me. It's not who I am. A lot of times, after getting to know me, people will forget the chair and forget I even have it. Sometimes I even forget I have it," says Linh.

She didn't let it stop her from going to college or always looking for the bright side.

"When life gives you lemons, make cupcakes. It's based on the notion that when life gives you lemons, you can make more than just lemonade," she says.

Lisa Jackson, Ms. Wheelchair Florida was diagnosed at with juvenile diabetes when she was just 15.

"At that time I was told if I don't take care of myself, this, this, and this could happen. Well, at 15 you go, 'Nah, not to me.' Well, yeah, to me," she says.

But Lisa inspires others and lives life to the fullest, despite also being legally blind. Her platform is independence.

"Men and women with chairs, they want to be able to go if they want to go by themselves," she says. "I want people to know that being in a wheelchair is not a burden. Life does not stop just because you're in a chair."

Bliss Welch, Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, has been in a wheechair for five years, but says it hasn't drastically changed her life.

"I still work. I go to school. I was pregnant and in a wheelchair. I have a family, a husband. You know, just a full active life. The wheelchair is just my mode to get from point-A to point-B," says Bliss.

Bliss has limb girdle muscular dystrophy and didn't start experiencing weakness in her limbs until she was about 16 years old. At heart, she says she's just a regular Tennessee girl.

"I love to do some shopping, be outside, spend time with my family. I have a 21-month old daughter," says Bliss.

Bliss says using a wheelchair has made her realize some important life lessons.

"Life is about more than the steps you take, and I think sometimes we get hung up on that," she says.

Jennifer Adams, Ms. Wheelchair Washington, was born with congenital limb loss, but she says its helped her realize the unique gifts each person is born with.

"I believe every person has a gift and talent regardless of the body we've been given to live in on this Earth," says Jennifer.

"I had parents who were really amazing and advocated for my education growing up so now I have a passion for anti-bullying and advocacy for people with disabilities. One of my slogans is: having a disability is cool. Because it actually opens a lot of doors to inspire people," says Jennifer. "There are limitations, obviously, but I've learned to embrace my limitations and also push past them."

Each contestant has a message of their own, like Heather Markham, who wants people to get to know her without assuming they know what her life is like.

"Don't decide that you know who I am, because I sit down. I'm just like you. I just sit down all the time," says Heather, Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky.

She doesn't let her chair or her muscular dystrophy get in the way of doing things like surfing.

"You have to find a way to engage with your community, engage in life. I'm not one to sit at home. Staying home is boring," she says.

"Those of us with disabilities, we're around able bodied people all day. We call ya'll ABs, and to have a week where we all get to spend learning from each other and we all share a very similar story and journey," says Ms. Wheelchair TX State Coordinator, Angela Wrigglesworth. "I think that that's what these ladies are really appreciating about this week. They're all incredible contestants."

Back on the pageant stage, the contestants are narrowed down to the top five - TN, MA, NJ, KY, WA. Each of the finalists delivers her platform speech and answers two randomly-drawn questions from the judges. They tabulate the scores and the winner is announced.

Bliss Welch, Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, is announced as first runner up, which makes Ms. Wheelchair Washington, Jennifer Adams, this year's Miss Wheelchair America.

"It means a chance to first of all make Ms. Wheelchair America a household name, as it should be, and a chance to impact people with disabilities and without disabilities all over the nation and hopefully the world," says Adams.

"Ultimately, women deserve to feel like queens," says Angela. "Oftentimes, when a woman with a disabilty rolls into a room, she doesn't always feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. With a crown on your head and a sash across you, there's just something that draws people in."

Although the crown may make Jennifer feel beautiful, Angela says it's not the measure of her true beauty.

"Real beauty is not measured by the number of heads that you turn, but by the number of hearts that you touch," says Angela.
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