Creating Community and Change
How participants in the Ms. Wheelchair America competition are creating community and making the world a better place
A year ago, Chandra Smith had never heard of Ms. Wheelchair America.
“I didn’t know there was a competition that focused on disability advocacy,” says Smith, who was crowned Ms. Wheelchair America 2024 earlier this year.
Smith, who became a wheelchair user after a health crisis in 2021, is just one of many women who has participated in the Ms. Wheelchair America program over the years. Ms. Wheelchair America, a nonprofit, focuses on equipping women to educate others about disabilities and advocate for those living with disabilities.
Women compete at the state level, then move on to the Ms. Wheelchair America national competition, where they’re judged on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation. The goal is to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for people with disabilities.
Allison Boot, Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2023, got involved because she wanted to find community with other women who were also interested in advocacy and disability rights.
“I’m from Dayton, Ohio, originally but I had moved away for about six years before moving back,” Boot says. “When I came back, a lot of my friends had moved away or were in different stages of their lives, so I participated in Ms. Wheelchair Ohio so that I could meet other women who were wheelchair users and advocates and make more friends.”
Khalia Hayslett, Ms. Wheelchair New York 2023, describes the friendships she’s found within the program as a “sisterhood.”
“There really is a sense of community with our class,” Hayslett said. “A lot of the contestants came seeking friendship and community. It is truly an amazing experience—and at some point in the competition none of us really cared who won!”
Boot also saw the competition as a way to garner greater visibility for her platform, which is centered on inclusive literature.
“My platform is READ for Equity,” Boot explains. “The acronym stands for “Raise Awareness, Embrace Differences, Advocate for Acceptance, and Dream Big. Inclusive literature and other inclusive mediums can encourage people in these areas, which leads to people with disabilities living more equitable lives.”
Boot’s platform isn’t just something she talks about. A three-time self-published author, Boot is currently at work on her next book, a children’s book. All of her books, which are geared toward young adults and children, include characters with disabilities.
“Two of the three books include princesses with disabilities,” Boot says. “My other book is geared a little more toward girls and boys, with a valiant man who goes on an epic quest to defeat a dragon. My fourth book, which I’m working on now, is about a unicorn who uses a wheelchair.”
The books, Boot says, are a way to increase disability visibility and advocate for disability rights.
“I realized from a very young age what an important tool advocacy can be, and that’s why I write young adult and children’s books,” she says. “It’s a fun way to expose and educate kids about something they may not have experienced themselves.”
Khalia Hayslett’s platform centers on visibility, mental health awareness and empowerment. As the reigning Ms. Wheelchair New York, Hayslett uses her visibility to increase disability rights awareness. Hayslett also promotes independence through travel in New York City where she lives.
“Across the board, New York is striving really hard to be all things accessible,” says Hayslett, who was born with arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair as well as crutches to get around. “All accessibility happens because of advocacy, and here the disabled community has me saying, ‘Excuse me, that’s not right.’”
Hayslett, who wants to encourage people living with disabilities to be more visible, shares traveling videos on social media to showcase the many accessible ways to get around the city.
“If people with disabilities aren’t visible living their lives, things won’t change because our non-disabled allies won’t recognize that barriers need to change now,” Hayslett says. “I’ve learned that New York Transit officials are watching my videos so they can make necessary changes. I’ve worked with their construction and IT teams to make the transit system more accessible, and it’s working!”
Hayslett reports that New York City is now home to more than 100 accessible subway stations, with the hope that the entire system will be accessible by 2050.
“Advocacy makes us noticeably present at the table,” she says.
Smith, who was serving as Ms. Wheelchair Maryland 2023 when she won the national title, chose digital accessibility as her platform. An IT engineer with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), she currently works in the 508 office, working to make websites, apps and other electronic data more accessible to people with disabilities.
“We have physical ramps, but we also need digital ramps for people with disabilities,” Smith says. “Digital accessibility is about making sure that websites, applications and electronic data are being understood and accessed by anyone, regardless of ability. We live in a digital world, and we need to make sure that everyone has access to the content that they need.”
Smith had just taken a job in the DIA’s 508 office, an office tasked with ensuring all electronic content is accessible and in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, when she became disabled herself. While undergoing a water-only fast while praying for her mother who needed a lung transplant, Smith fainted and went into multi-organ failure. Doctors administered a medication that directed blood from her limbs to her organs. The treatment worked, but Smith developed sepsis in her arms and legs, resulting in Smith having three of her limbs amputated.
A triple amputee with limited dexterity in her right hand due to a stroke, Smith quickly recognized the vital importance of her work.
“While I was in the rehab hospital, I took a trip to the computer lab,” she recalls. “I rolled into the lab, and it was a very different experience. I ran across a website that wasn’t accessible—it only allowed for mouse control and not keyboard access. I began to do more research and 96% of websites and applications are inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.
“I fainted, and I woke up in a world that wasn’t built for me,” Smith continues. “I started experiencing all these barriers, whether it was architectural barriers, cultural attitudes or digital barriers, and I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless.”
As Ms. Wheelchair America, Smith will take every opportunity to share her platform over the course of the next year. From speaking engagements to providing accessibility tips on social media, hosting trainings and writing about digital accessibility, Smith also plans to work with legislators in her state to begin making policies that strengthen 508 compliance and promote universal design.
But she also plans to keep sharing the stage with her Ms. Wheelchair America sisters as they work together to broaden their visibility and change the world for the better.
“Advocacy is like construction,” Smith says, “you have to keep building. I’m working with several other women who were in the competition. I host a bimonthly advocacy meeting where we dive into their different platforms and see how we can increase our influence across the United States.”
Get to Know the Contestants
Want to know a little more about the women profiled in this article?
Ms. Wheelchair America 2024
Ms. Wheelchair Maryland 2023
Hometown: Pasadena, Maryland
Platform: Digital Accessibility
On being named Ms. Wheelchair America 2024: “I was completely speechless and that almost never happens. All of the women are so amazing, and they all have a message and a purpose, I just wanted to do well for my state, Maryland, which was getting in Top Five because we haven’t been in the Top Five in quite some time. It was just breathtaking, but I know with this crown comes responsibility, and I had a lot of work to do.” Follow Chandra on Instagram.
Ms. Wheelchair Ohio 2023
Hometown: Beaver Creek, Ohio
Platform: READ for Equity
On why advocacy is so important: “It’s so important to have a voice and make sure it’s heard because people with disabilities deserve to live equitable full lives. We have a wonderful piece of legislation in the ADA, but if advocates don’t continue to talk about why it’s important or how much it helps to shape and improve our lives, then people won’t know and it will lose some of that importance and power.” Learn more about Allison’s books at allisonmbootauthor.com and follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
Ms. Wheelchair New York 2023
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Platform: Visibility, Mental Health Awareness, Empowerment
On being a role model: “My life is not focused on my disability or what it has prevented me from doing. I’m more focused on making the world fully accessible so that person that comes after me can see me and know they aren’t alone. Growing up, I didn’t have anybody as a role model. Now, there are young people who look at me and say, ‘I can do it because you do it.’” Follow Khalia on Instagram.
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