Des Moines residents may spot an unusual sight this week: a row of perhaps 30 or 40 women in wheelchairs, many wearing sashes and tiaras, cruising the downtown’s sidewalks and skywalks. Iowa’s capitol city is hosting the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, bringing in contestants from as far away as Alaska and Florida.
Event coordinator Judy Hoit, of Iowa City, says this is not your typical pageant like those based on a woman’s outer beauty. “There’s no swimming suits involved,” Hoit says. “They are judged on their achievements and accomplishments since the onset of their disability. We say that because we have a lot of women who maybe have been disabled since birth and others who are just recently disabled from maybe car accidents.”
The competition is a win-win for everyone involved, Hoit says, as its focus is on highlighting the abilities of people with disabilities.
This marks the second time Des Moines has hosted this national event. The first time was in 2003. “It’s a major way for people to know about Iowa,” Hoit says. “I’ve already heard from the contestants who are here. They’ve never been to Iowa before and they’re anxious to see what Des Moines has to offer.” Hoit is a polio survivor and was the first Ms. Wheelchair Iowa in 1996 and she now runs the state program. This year’s event will feature competitors from 25 states. Why aren’t there representatives from all 50 states?
“A lot of it is just publicity,” Hoit says. “We have a hard time letting people know about the program even though this is our 44th annual pageant. A lot of states do not have state programs so that’s one of the goals as far as the national board is concerned, to get more states involved. We know there’s a lot of women in wheelchairs out there who just want to be seen and heard.”
Iowa is being represented in this year’s pageant by Katie Helmers, Miss Wheelchair Iowa 2015. The 25-year-old Helmers is from Dakota City and lost the use of her legs in a car crash in 2013. The crowning event is open to the public and is scheduled for Saturday night at the downtown Des Moines Marriott.