A new Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin has been crowned after pageant leaders stripped the original winner of the title when she appeared in a newspaper photograph standing up.
The announcement of the new winner Tuesday came amid a storm of protest over pageant officials’ decision last week to take the crown away from Janeal Lee, a high school teacher and muscular dystrophy sufferer who uses a scooter as her main way to get around but says she can walk up to 50 feet on a good day and stand while teaching.
During the furor, the runner-up refused to accept the crown out of protest. Lee’s sister, who also has muscular dystrophy and was named Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota, dropped out of the competition in that state. And the coordinator for the organization’s Minnesota program stepped down from her job to “stand up for Janeal Lee.”
“I no longer feel comfortable supporting an organization that instead of working towards creating a positive change, chooses to perpetuate stereotypes and requests its participants to hide their abilities while in public,” said the sister, 26-year-old Sharon Spring of Rochester, Minn.
Seen standing in photo
Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin officials stripped Lee of the crown after the 30-year-old was shown standing in her classroom in a photograph carried in a supplement to The Post-Crescent newspaper of Appleton.
The organization said candidates for the crown have to “mostly be seen in the public using their wheelchairs or scooters.”
The eventual winner was second runner-up Kim Jerman of Waukesha, one of five women who competed for the title during a January competition. She did not immediately return a call Tuesday from The Associated Press.
Pat O’Bryant, the national program’s executive director, confirmed Jerman had accepted the Wisconsin crown but refused additional comment.
“We are not getting into a he-said, she-said, situation. I think we’ve said enough,” she said. “I’m very sorry all of this is happening.”
The crown went to Jerman after first runner-up Michelle Kearney of West Allis refused to accept it.
“Who is to say who is more disabled and less disabled than another person?” Kearney told The Post-Crescent. “Had I accepted, it’s as if I had been saying I’m OK with the decision. I thought they educated and advocated about disabilities.”
Resignation in protest
The coordinator for the group’s Minnesota program, Jen Onsum, also quit her job in protest.
“I feel I must now stand up for Janeal Lee and against an organization that has discriminated against the very people they strive to advocate for,” Onsum said, according to a statement included in a link on the national program’s Web site.
Lee said she didn’t think the organization’s decision was fair but would use the dispute to teach others about the range of disabilities people can have.
“Clearly, it would be better if this didn’t have to happen to spark any interest or conversation about disabilities,” Lee said.
The winners of state Ms. Wheelchair contests go on to the national competition July 19-24 in Albany, N.Y. The program — which is not a beauty pageant — is designed to spotlight the accomplishments of women who use wheelchairs.