I have an aunt who has been instrumental in an organization called Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky for years. I’d heard about it through the family grapevine on occasion but never really knew much about it. Then I started this blog.
Aunt Pat, or Pat O’Bryant to most people, asked me to help get the word out about the upcoming pageant in Louisville. So I looked into Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky to find out what it’s all about.
I found out that Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky is all about education, advocacy and opportunity. The organization gives women in wheelchairs a means to educate society about the achievements and needs of people with disabilities. It gives them a platform to advocate for change to improve the lives of people with disabilities. And it gives them the opportunity to branch out into the world.
I also found out that the pageant, which is not a beauty pageant, has a strong Northern Kentucky connection.
But first, Aunt Pat wants you to know some things:
- She wants you to know that the organization needs contestants. Now.
- She wants you to know that the application deadline for the pageant is Monday – but if you need more time, especially to get together the $400 fee that helps pay for the pageant, just let her know. “We will work with them,” she said.
- She wants you to know that contestants should be US citizens aged 21 to 60 who have lived in Kentucky for at least six months and who use a wheelchair or cart for all of their mobility outside the home.
- She wants you to know that contestants should be accomplished and articulate because the winner must be able to communicate with the general public, the business community and elected officials.
The Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky pageant will be held Nov. 5. The pageant venue recently changed; it is now Jefferson Community and Technical College at Broadway and Second St. in Louisville. The winner of the state pageant goes on to compete in Ms. Wheelchair America, which will be held Aug. 14-21 in Erie, Penn.
Aunt Pat knows a little about these competitions. While talking with her, I learned that her husband, a.k.a Uncle Tom, used to be the president of Ms. Wheelchair America. And then Aunt Pat was the executive director of the national organization some time after that, in addition to working as the Kentucky state coordinator.
“They’re my heroes,” Aunt Pat said of the contestants. “The things they overcome …[are] unbelievable.”
Now, about that Northern Kentucky connection: Robbin Head, of Burlington, lived in Louisville when she was 38 years old and suddenly found herself with a disability.
She was goofing around with her husband one day when he picked her up from behind in a playful bear hug and her vertebrae fractured. She eventually found out that she had severe osteoporosis and was told it was not a matter of if her vertebrae would fracture, but when. The injury left her paralyzed.
This woman – who had joined the military at 18, had married and lived all over the world – now needed a wheelchair to get around.
Three years after her injury, in 1998, a vocational rehabilitation counselor working with Head in Louisville suggested she enter the Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky pageant. It was the first year for the pageant after an independent delegate from Kentucky, Terri Cecil, won Ms. Wheelchair America and came home to start a state organization.
“The Ms. Wheelchair pageant is what really helped me discover and more understand the world of disability,” Head told me when we spoke on the phone recently.
Head didn’t win that year, but she entered again. She was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky 1999 and went on to compete in Ms. Wheelchair America. While she didn’t place in the national competition, Head relished spending the week with so many other women in wheelchairs.
“It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever been to in all of my life,” she said. “It made you feel like you were really part of a community again and part of actually the real society because you didn’t feel like you were the only one sitting there in a wheelchair.”
After her Kentucky reign, Head, who moved to Northern Kentucky in 2000, served as the state organization’s president for six years. More recently, she’s in her sixth year as the pageant’s head judge. As you might expect, she speaks highly of the program and encourages women to participate.
“It’s a way to be in touch with not just being a woman in a wheelchair but a woman of the world,” Head said. “It makes you feel like you’re part of something more than just being yourself, that there’s a place that wants you as a woman or as a person with a disability to use your voice and to use your experience to help others.”
Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky strives to give voice to the needs of those with disabilities of all kinds, whether they are mental, physical or both, she said. The organization, she said, educates the public about special needs and “why we are different and yet very much the same as the able-bodied community.”
If you know a woman in a wheelchair who might be interested in this effort, please get them in touch with Aunt Pat. You can email her at email@example.com. You can call her at 502-394-9160. You also can visit the Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky website to find out more. And if you think this is a great program and want to support it, Aunt Pat is always looking for sponsors.
Aunt Pat is not the type of person who needs anyone to speak for her, but I’ll go out on a limb here as her niece and say this: Aunt Pat thanks you.