A University graduate student competed in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant after winning the title of Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee at the state pageant in April.
Jean–Marie Lawrence, who has muscular dystrophy, has been in a wheelchair since she was 13 years old. She said she was inspired to compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair to have a better platform to advocate for improved transportation accessibility for the disabled.
“Most fixed–route buses are wheelchair accessible, but fixed routes still have some problems with communication involving people with sensory disabilities or cognitive disabilities,” Lawrence said. “Also, sidewalks aren’t always accessible at the point of the bus stop– if there is even a sidewalk at all… It is a little bit dangerous sometimes.”
While Lawrence said she did not win the title of Ms. Wheelchair America at the competition this year, she said she learned a great deal from the experience about how to expand her platform. Most notably, she said, she was able to meet with Tennessee congressman Chuck Fleischmann to discuss her ideas for change.
According to statistics from the American Census Bureau, approximately one in five Americans has some sort of disability, and one in 10 have disability categorized as serious.
Despite the large number of Americans who are impacted by some form of a disability, they still face many daily challenges others may not realize, Lawrence said. Because of this, she said, she is studying public administration with an emphasis on small and local government to help encourage improvements in access for the disabled.
“It is a really big passion of mine to work on transportation accessibility,” she said. “Buses have been accessible for years now, but they don’t really grow with the population that is increasing, whether the disability is acquired or it is something they are born with.”
One common issue with providing access for the disabled is that it is often difficult to determine what is needed for improvement unless you yourself are disabled, Lawrence said.
Kristin Connors, president of the Ms. Wheelchair America Board and former Ms. Wheelchair America, said the pageant is based on finding a contestant who will be the best advocate for change and improvements for the disabled.
“It is based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities,” Connors said in a prepared statement. “Our contestants are women who have achieved many things in their lives, including advanced degrees and successful careers, despite their mobility challenges.”
Now, Lawrence said, she is continuing her advocacy through government on a local level and preparing for next year’s pageant.
“I’m really excited to put myself out there and be a representative for the disability community,” she said.