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July 19, 2012
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There she is...

Story and photos by Chad Taylor

Jayde Henry’s journey to become Ms. Wheelchair America.

Parking meters are 55 inches high. You’re not expected to be able to do much with that information. It’s not even something you think about all that often because, well, they’re just parking meters. But things like 55-inch parking meters become something you notice when your line of sight is only 44 inches. Welcome to Jayde Henry’s world.

According to the UCSF Disability Statistics Center, more than 6.8 million Americans use assistive devices to help them with mobility. Of that population, 1.7 million use wheelchairs or scooters. The simple, harsh truth of the situation is that while 1.7 million is a lot of people, it’s still far from the majority and most of the things in this world are built to suit the rest of us. Despite affirmative legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 which requires reasonable accommodations to be made for individuals with disabilities in fields such as public transportation, education, health care and housing, simple, daily accessibility continues to be an issue for many Americans.

Jayde Henry in front of a handicapped parking meter downtown. “It’s not something most people think about.”

Approximately half of wheelchair users have to navigate steps to enter or exit their homes. Once they’re in their homes, a similar percentage of wheelchair users report difficulty reaching or opening cabinets, and approximately one-third report difficulty in using the bathroom and opening and closing doors due to the design of the home. In addition, 82 percent of wheelchair users report that local public transportation is difficult to use or to access. In Polk County, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) offers Paratransit services to individuals with disabilities as well as RideShare vans equipped with wheelchair lifts. Iowa Code Chapter 321L defines the parking standards for people with disabilities and designates a minimum number of parking spots designated for people with disabilities.

Then, ironically, the city gives those spots standard height parking meters.

When you’ve dealt with a physical disability for your entire life, seemingly trivial issues like “I can’t see how much time is on the meter” or “how long will it take me to pump my gas” or “is that doorway wide enough” become jarringly important. Not necessarily because the issues themselves are life-threatening, but because the answers have the potential to alienate and isolate an entire segment of the population.

“It’s frustrating when I call places for a job interview,” said Henry. “I’ll ask them, ‘Does your building have an elevator?’ Sometimes they say ‘no, that’s grandfathered in for our building, so we don’t,’ and I’m disqualified for a job before we even have the interview because I can’t get to them.”

It’s a feeling that’s not exclusive to adults with disabilities, either. In March of this year, Arla Jan Wilson of Atlanta, Ga., made national headlines when she posted a photo of her 12-year-old son Alex to Facebook. Alex is in his school choir, and the photo shows the group performing while standing on a set of risers, while Alex sits alone in his wheelchair, 15 feet off to the side.

“To see the look on his face,” Wilson told Atlanta’s 11 Alive News, “it broke my heart.”

Henry was too young to remember having her back broken.

Jen Allen (right) created a fundraiser to help with Jayde Henry’s travel expenses for Ms. Wheelchair America.

“About six months after I was born, I was in a car accident,” she said. “(It) caused me to slide under the (seatbelt). I slid under the belt and caught my chin and snapped my spine. At first they said I was just traumatized, but the only hospital that could take me was the University of Iowa hospital. They said that I was paralyzed at first from the neck down, but I started moving my hands, so that changed.”

Having spent her entire life in a wheelchair, Henry is acutely aware of the issues the nation’s disabled citizens deal with daily.

“The gas industries aren’t complying with the ADA regulations for gas pumps,” she alleges. “There are some that do have the refueling assistance. There are some that have a pole that sticks out long enough for you to stick your hand out the driver’s door to push a button and it’s supposed to alert the person in the gas station that you need help.” She shakes her head. “But there are a lot of others that don’t.”

Henry decided that she wanted to work toward getting some changes enacted. Incremental things, perhaps, but changes that have a profound normalizing effect on the lives of disabled Americans.

“I recently sent the governor and some of the legislators a letter about (the gas pumps),” she said. “That was last month, and this month they told me they’re coming out with a new idea for gas pumps, but it’s still not compliant.”

Motivated by such awareness campaigns, Henry became interested in the Ms. Wheelchair pageant.

Started in 1972, the Ms. Wheelchair America is, according to the pageant’s mission statement, “a competition based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities.”

The 2012 competition will be held in Providence, R.I., on Aug. 6-12. In addition to competing for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America, the pageant is a chance for women with disabilities to meet, share ideas and learn to become better advocates for the disabled in their home states. When not speaking in front of the judges, contestants will be able to attend seminars on leadership, public speaking, mentoring and networking.

There’s also the chance for hands-on experience in working with youth through the pageant’s mentoring program. On Aug. 7, each contestant will be paired with a disabled child from the local community. The contestants will spend the day getting to know the children and encourage them by providing an opportunity for them to meet successful, confident women living with disabilities.

Following the mentoring experience, the pageant hosts a three-day “Leadership Institute” where the contestants will learn about creating effective action plans and work on strengthening their public speaking skills. The end goal is to give contestants the necessary information to return to their home states as better advocates, as well as the confidence to be able to put that information to use in their communities.

Between the seminars and training sessions, the contestants will spend time in front of the judges, making their case for the Ms. Wheelchair America crown. Unlike traditional pageants, the Ms. Wheelchair contestants are judged on the strength and clarity of their message. Each woman will arrive in Rhode Island with a vision for her home constituency that she’ll be expected to communicate to the judges. Each contestant is given two minutes to speak about the topic of her choosing, and there are additional question-and-answer sessions designed to test the contestant’s ability to speak contemporaneously, as well as her comfort level as a potential spokesperson.

The final criterion in the selection process is the People’s Choice Award. From now until Aug. 10, supporters are encouraged to log on to and vote for their home contestant. Votes are made in the form of tax-deductible, charitable donations in the contestant’s name, with each dollar counting as a single vote. Once Ms. Wheelchair America 2013 has been crowned, a portion of the People’s Choice donations will go toward the winner’s travel expenses, as well as funding a program in her home state.

But before she can win, Henry has to get there. While Ms. Wheelchair America receives some money for travel, all of the state-level winners have to pay their own way out to the pageant. While Henry is one of the lucky 19 percent of wheelchair-bound Americans fortunate enough to be employed, her job in her father’s Indianola-based printing company doesn’t pay her nearly enough to cover all the expenses of a week-long trip to the east coast.

“Mom has helped me with some of the expenses, but getting the money is very slow,” said Henry.

While Henry is good at speaking on the topics she’s advocating, self-promotion is new to her, and she’s never had to try and raise money before. Henry realized early on that if she was going to make it to Rhode Island, she was going to need some help.

Jen Allen knows a fair bit about promotion. A nearly omnipresent fixture in Des Moines’ music scene, Allen is the driving promotional force behind her own band, Hath No Fury, as well as a recent runner up in Lazer 103.3’s Rock Girl contest. (She finished third.) On top of her musical moonlighting, Allen handles the social media duties for her day job at Central Iowa Pool and Spa, and she can be found spearheading projects like Des Moines’ Slutwalk, where she shares her own experience with sexual assault as a means of bolstering other women dealing with similar trauma. So when Henry decided she needed someone to help her with promotion and fundraising, the outgoing, socially-savvy Allen seemed like a natural choice.

While the pairing has worked well for Henry, it wasn’t something she’d originally planned on. In fact, Henry and Allen began collaborating more or less by chance.

“We met at a costume party where Index Case was playing,” recalls Henry. “I went to high school with the lead singer of the band. I’d heard about it and had always wanted to hear them play.”

“It was nuts in there,” adds Allen. “Jayde was up front, which is where she needs to be in order to see anything, and people were getting pretty rowdy and kind of bumping into her and not really paying attention. So I kind of moved up to be closer to her so I could block her a bit with my body.”

Allen and Henry had been friends on Facebook for a while, but they had never met in person. Henry, however, was familiar with Allen’s exploits.

“I wanted to have Jen help me because she was one of the runners-up for Rock Girl, plus she was in a band so I figured she knew more about the public relations part than I did. I didn’t know if she’d actually accept it, being as busy as she was.”

But accept the offer she did. By that point, Henry had won the Miss Wheelchair Iowa Pageant and had her sights set on the Ms. Wheelchair America title.

So as her first order of business, Allen immediately set about putting together a fundraiser to help get Henry out to Rhode Island.

“It was a totally new experience for me,” Allen said. “It was quite the handful. It was the first time I put together a show on my own.”

Taking place at House of Bricks, the fundraiser show featured an eclectic range of performances ranging from Des Moines stalwarts Brother Trucker, to Winterset teenagers Blue Haven. Allen played a set with Superchief’s James Segovia on bass, and the show finished with Ames’ Little Ruckus.

“Between contacting the various bands and making sure everything time-wise was going to work and getting the right amount of publicity out... a lot of things went well, a lot of things were a learning curve,” Allen said.

The fundraiser was a success but a qualified one. The money raised has nudged Henry closer to her goal, but she’s still trying to raise additional funds to cover the cost of her hotel stay and food while she’s at the pageant.

Part of the reason for the slow fundraising is the pageant’s low profile, something that Allen has worked hard to correct and overcome.

“We sent a number of different letters out to different businesses, creating a Facebook page to create awareness that the whole thing exists,” Allen said. “A lot of people don’t know that it exists because it doesn’t affect their daily life.”

“It’s not something most people think about,” Henry concluded.

Like parking meter heights. CV

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