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Pageant prompts debate on meaning of disability

Wis. woman loses Ms. Wheelchair title

WAUSAU, Wis. -- Elegant in a chocolate-brown, strapless taffeta gown, Janeal Lee beamed as she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin in her three-wheeled scooter, her tiara sparkling in her hair, a bouquet of yellow roses in her lap.

Gifts were heaped on her, too -- a new scooter, jewelry, a two-night stay at a Wisconsin resort -- and there were hugs of congratulations, lots of pictures, and a Marine to escort the 30-year-old math teacher off stage.

Just weeks after the joy of that January night at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, Lee, who has muscular dystrophy, has been stripped of the title -- and made to return the prizes, including the new scooter -- after she was seen in a newspaper photograph standing up.

Now the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant is in an uproar over just how disabled a winner must be.

A national advocacy group protested that the dethroning reflects ''backward thinking" on the part of the pageant.

''This policy makes no sense," said Andy Imparato, president of the Washington-based American Association of People with Disabilities. ''I think it was interesting the story broke on April Fools' Day. I think a lot of us who saw the headlines thought it was an April Fools' joke."

The World Association of Persons With Disabilities, based in Oklahoma City, called for Lee's reinstatement.

''This is just a very bad message," said George Kerford, chairman emeritus. ''It is the wrong way to project this whole thing. We feel that a person with a disability should not be characterized as practically dead."

The Kaukauna High teacher was shown standing in her classroom in a picture carried in a supplement to The Post-Crescent newspaper of Appleton. The pageant organization said candidates for the crown have to ''mostly be seen in the public" using their wheelchairs or scooters. Lee says she can walk up to 50 feet on a good day and stand while teaching but uses a scooter as her main way to get around.

''The treatment I've received from the board doesn't say much for the organization," Lee said this week.

But Gina Hackel, who won the 2004 Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair title and is the coordinator of the pageant this year, said: ''The eligibility criteria is very specific, just like Special Olympics. Kids who don't have cognitive disabilities are not eligible for Special Olympics, and nobody has a problem with that."

If Ms. Wheelchair America contestants can get from point A to point B without a wheelchair or a scooter, ''how can they be Ms. Wheelchair anything?" Hackel asked.

In the furor over Lee's dethroning, the runner-up in the pageant refused to accept the crown, and Lee's sister, Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota, withdrew from the national competition in protest. A pageant leader in Minnesota resigned.

Kim Jerman, the second runner-up in the Wisconsin pageant, accepted the title. Jerman, 30, who has cerebral palsy and has never been able to walk, now advances to the national pageant July 19-24 in Albany, N.Y.

''I feel that it is unfortunate how I received the title," she said Wednesday through an interpreter because her broken speech is not easily understood. But she said people who can walk should not be allowed to compete: ''It is not fair for me, who needs a wheelchair all day. It is named Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair for a reason. It is not named Ms. Disability."

Ms. Wheelchair America, a pageant now in its 33rd year, is a nonprofit organization.

Ms. Wheelchair America 2004, Cinda Hughes of Oklahoma City, said the pageant's sponsors include businesses with ties to the wheelchair industry. Executive director Pat O'Bryant disputed that. She refused to identify any of the sponsors but said there are no wheelchair or healthcare-related companies among them.

Contestants are judged on their accomplishments, their self-perception, and their communication and ''projection" skills in a series of personal and on-stage interviews and speeches, organizers said. Beauty plays ''zero" role, Hackel said.

The winner spends her yearlong reign making public appearances and giving interviews to promote the achievements of the disabled and bring attention to the barriers they face.

Bill Freeman, president of the American Disability Association, based in Birmingham, Ala., said the dispute is not all bad, because it has led to a meaningful conversation about disabilities.

''Who can say someone who can stand for 15 minutes is less disabled than someone who can't stand at all?" he said.

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