TWIN LAKES — Bonding, motivation and education were only some of the benefits of participating in the Ms. Wheelchair American National Pageant for Carol Abraham. Although she did not bring home the title of Ms. Wheelchair America 2016, the Twin Lakes resident felt like a champion.

Carol Abraham, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Twin Lakes, who was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin last February, is pictured with her husband, Tim. (Submitted photo courtesy Carol Abraham)

Abraham traveled to Grand Rapids Michigan for the 45th annual Ms. Wheelchair America National Pageant at the end of the summer. Throughout the weeklong event, 26 contestants were judged based on their ability to advocate for the 56 million Americans living with disabilities.

“We were all winners in so many ways,” she said. “Through the course of the week, the contestants developed a strong bond or sisterhood. The entire experience was very motivating, educational and will assist me in continuing my advocacy efforts. And now working together as part of ‘Team MWA 2017’ we can all work together, supporting each other and assisting to increase awareness while we advocate for people living with disabilities throughout America.”

Abraham, 55, has Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy, a rare congenital neuromuscular disease. LGMD is progressive in that it continually worsens, causing muscle weakness and atrophy of the voluntary muscles, primarily in her arms, shoulders, legs and pelvis area. She has used an electric wheelchair since her 30s. She was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2016 in February 2016.

The winner of the pageant was 21-year-old Eliza McIntosh from Utah. McIntosh, who has spinal dysgenesis and is paralyzed from the waist down, utilizes a wheelchair for all mobility.

“Eliza studies political science at the University of Utah and is an intern at the Disability Law Center,” explained Abraham, adding her platform motto is “Where there is a wheel, there is a way.’”

Her platform focuses on helping individuals to identify their passion, invite people to join them and then ignite the community, to guide advocacy efforts, said Abraham.

It was a busy and fast paced week in Grand Rapids for the Twin Lakes resident. Each day began with a 7 a.m. breakfast and concluded after 9 p.m., with a 90-minute afternoon break before dinner.[su_pullquote align=”right”]Click here for related story.[/su_pullquote]

“We attended a number of workshop sessions that included topics such as disability history, ADA laws, adaptive sports, self-defense, accessible transportation, television and radio interview techniques, the power of photography and self-esteem and marketing, to name a few,” said Abraham. “In addition, we attended a disability resource fair. Each contestant was interviewed by the panel of five judges, three times during the week.”

Their first full day was a “fun day” to get acclimated with the other contestants and their companions. The morning activity began with a guided paint class at a local art studio where each painted a large floral design on canvas.

In the afternoon, they attended a lesson on wheelchair ballroom dancing, led by a professional ballroom dance couple. Co-instructor, Cheryl Angelelli, was a former Ms. Wheelchair Michigan titleholder,” noted Abraham.

Other fun events included a 50s dance and a comedy night.

“The actual pageant was a two-evening event, on Friday and Saturday,” explained Abraham. “Friday was ‘speech night,’ and each contestant had the opportunity to give their two-minute platform speech to an audience of approximately 300 guests. Saturday night was a gala event for the actual crowing ceremony.”

Abraham, a member of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Twin Lakes, enjoyed the week’s activities, but enjoyed making new friends and meeting world renowned award-winning fashion photographer, Rick Guidotti, from his non-profit organization, “Positive Exposure,” whose motto is “Change how you see, see how you change.”

“He shared his experience of how he began taking pictures of individuals who happened to have some form of rare disease after working for years within the fashion industry and being frustrated by being dictated to what was supposed to be beauty,” explained Abraham.

“Rick and Positive Exposure utilize photography, film and narrative to transform public perceptions of people living with genetic, physical, intellectual and behavioral differences. Listening to Rick speak and spending time with him in a photo shoot was an amazing experience. His positive attitude on life and beauty are truly remarkable.”

Through his educational and advocacy programs, Rick promotes an inclusive, compassionate world, where differences are meant to be lauded. Through his photography, Abraham learned she is unique and does not need to feel ashamed of her body.

“It’s amazing how self-esteem is improved when you ‘change how you see’ and ‘see how you change,’” she said. “It was a motivating and empowering week.”

Abraham said she and the other contestants can take a team approach with some of the larger advocacy issues impacting the lives of people with disabilities. They have begun working to improve air travel for those with disabilities, especially ones who rely on a wheelchair for all mobility.

“I will continue my ministry in advocating for people with disabilities, as I have done for many years,” she said. “I will also mentor the next Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2017, once she is crowned in February, to help her have a successful reign.”