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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“It’s not something most people think about,”
Like parking meter heights. CV