Ms. Wheelchair Indiana will use title as platform

FRANK GRAY The Journal Gazette Published:

FORT WAYNE, (AP) -- The Ms. Wheelchair Indiana contest doesn't get a lot of attention.

Perhaps that's because there were only five entries in last year's event and only three entries this year.

Maybe it's because the contest isn't a beauty contest. Its purpose is to select an articulate, accomplished person who depends on a wheelchair 24 hours a day to advocate for people with disabilities.

But the winner's name and background aren't promoted, and you don't hear that Ms. Wheelchair Indiana will show up somewhere as a speaker.

Ruth Smith, who is from Fort Wayne and was named Ms. Wheelchair Indiana on Saturday night, hopes to change that.

"There is power in having a tiara and a sash," she told The Journal Gazette (http://bit.ly/1h2Q8QB ). She hopes it will open more doors and let her talk to politicians and others about the annual contest, the fact that those with disabilities can become accomplished individuals, and the fact that they still face a lot of physical barriers in a world built for everyone else.

But let's talk about Smith for a minute.

When she was a baby, she developed spinal meningitis. It was advanced by the time it was detected, she said, though she has no idea how long it took to beat. She was a baby.

The aftermath, though, was devastating. She lost both legs above the knee and suffered numerous malformations as a result of the disease. She lost her nose and almost lost a replacement nose to infection. One of her hands, deformed by the disease, had to be reconstructed. She needed skin grafts. Her leg bones continued to grow after the amputations and more surgeries were needed to trim them.

This went on for years, about 29 years in all. Smith, who is now 34, had her last reconstructive surgery only five years ago.

But she built a life. She has a bachelor's degree in childhood health from Purdue University. She is a receptionist and performs other duties in a Fort Wayne doctor's office, and she's studying toward a master's in clinical mental health counseling from the University of Saint Francis, working at Turnstone in a practicum.

Now, she'll be a spokeswoman for Ms. Wheelchair Indiana and will compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant this year.

We talked about handicapped accessibility. Yes, she said, things might be better today than they were 30 years ago. "But the people who make things more accessible aren't the ones who use them," she said.

Cities put cuts in curbs, but they let the curbs fall apart, she said.

Buildings install handicapped stalls in bathrooms, she said. You can get into one, but you can't close the door. Issues go on and on.

Now, Smith says, she hopes to be able to talk about those things, with the tiara and sash giving her words a little more clout.

But she also hopes to promote the Ms Wheelchair event itself. She hopes to generate more entries, which, she hopes, will generate more talk about issues that people with handicaps still face.

"You can't change things if you don't have a voice," she said.

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