"I’m really looking forward to meeting the other women and just getting to know them,” says Katrina Horsch, Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island. A lifelong Warwick resident, Horsch will be competing against nearly 30 other disabled females in this weekend’s Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.
“I think it’s going to be a really excellent experience.”
The weeklong event, which started yesterday with orientation, marks the first time Ms. Wheelchair America will be crowned in the Ocean State since the competition’s inception in 1972. It includes activities such as workshops, luncheons, a mentoring program, an old-fashioned pajama party, networking opportunities, plus sessions with a panel of diverse judges from across the country.
The 41st titleholder will be announced Saturday at the crowning ceremony at the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel at 5 Avenue of the Arts from 4 to 8 p.m.
According to Kristen Connors, the first Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island, Ms. Wheelchair America 2006 and now President of the Ms. Wheelchair America Board, the event focuses on women’s empowerment.
Unlike traditional pageants, she said, Ms. Wheelchair America is not about selecting the most attractive woman. Rather, it’s a contest based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to appoint the most accomplished and articulate woman to represent the 52 million Americans living with disabilities.
“I’ve seen it change so many women’s lives in such a way that you wouldn’t imagine, including my own,” said Connors, a Cranston resident who formerly served as a constituent caseworker for Congressman Jim Langevin.
“Everything I’ve done since the year I won can be attested to winning the title that year,” she said.
Judging will be based on a combination of private interviews, a platform speech presentation and stage questions. The selected representative must be able to communicate the needs and the accomplishments of her constituency to the general public, the business community and legislature.
In order to qualify, contestants must be between the ages of 21 and 60 and be in a wheelchair for 100 percent of their daily community living. Connors and Horsch meet this qualification, as both have spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy.
Despite their disabilities, they are each able to advocate for individuals with disabilities. Horsch, a 2007 Rhode Island College (RIC) graduate, as well as a graduate of Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, said she is pleased to be doing just that.
She has been dealing with her condition since childhood, but having a child and recently taking a few falls that broke her femur bones caused her to be wheelchair-bound.
“People with disabilities need to be visible and represented by the media in a meaningful way,” she said in a press release. “If the world is ever going to fully accept us, the world needs to see us.”
Additionally, Horsch is a member of a committee at RIC that meets to discuss the needs of people with disabilities and whether the school needs to update its campus to be more handicap-accessible.
During her time at the school, it wasn’t up to par. Thanks to Horsch, that is no longer the case.
“I lived in the dorms for five years and they had no automatic doors and I was using an electric scooter at the time so there was no way that I would have gotten into the dorm room unless they installed automatic doors,” she said. “I advocated for myself and for other people after me for the college to install automatic doors, not only in the dorm, but in other buildings that I had a lot of classes in. It’s an old campus, so they had to do a lot of updating.”
Horsch has also volunteered in Providence inner city schools to speak about having a disability. She recently visited a third grade ESL classroom to promote diversity and let them know it’s OK to acknowledge that others have disabilities.
“When I was growing up, it really seemed like no one talked about it and it was this really taboo issue,” Horsch said. “You didn’t point out when people were different and I think that led to a lot of misunderstandings. It was an amazing experience seeing these kids really accept me because it was really tough when I was a kid. These kids were so accepting and I think I learned more from them than they learned from me.”
Connors has done similar things, and, of course, has been an advocate for people with disabilities through her dedication for the pageant. In fact, she helped establish the Rhode Island program in 2005.
Moreover, after she was crowned she attended the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving and spent five days in Taiwan during Taiwan’s second Ms. Wheelchair pageant.
“They invited me to crown their new titleholder,” she said. “It was amazing.”
When she won the title in 2006, Connors said she was shocked and thrilled at the same time. Her nephew, Connor Buonaccorsi, 11, a student at Orchard Farms Elementary School in Western Cranston who was 3 at the time, remembers her victory like it was yesterday.
“I was saying, ‘I want auntie to win, I want auntie to win. Did she win yet?’ And my parents kept saying, ‘Connor, you have to keep quiet,’” he said. “And then they said she won.”
Up until about six months ago, Horsch had never heard of the Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island pageant. She learned about it via an email from a Muscular Dystrophy Association coordinator just a month before the event, which took place in April.
At first, she was worried it was too late to sign up, but to her delight, she still had time, though very little.
In less than four weeks, Horsch prepared a speech, which included a list of her goals if crowned. It focused on building self-esteem for people living with disabilities and her desire to create more visibility in the media.
Though she wasn’t crowned on stage, as she was the runner-up to Josie Badger of Pennsylvania, who was unable to fulfill her duties, Horsch said she was “stunned and excited” when she realized she earned the title.
But, she didn’t have too much time to celebrate.
“Just like the Rhode Island pageant, I had to get everything together really quickly,” she said of the current contest.
Still, everything has fallen into place and she is enjoying herself at the pageant. Her husband of five years, Greg Putnam, as well as their son, Erik Horsch, 3, are routing for her.
“I think [the pageant] is really cool because it raises awareness and helps make changes,” said Greg. “The more I learn about it, the more I learn how rewarding it is.”
Connors agreed. She said the event, which this year is co-hosted by the Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island Foundation and the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Foundation, is important not only to raise awareness, but also to make the women involved feel special.
“I think every woman should be in a pageant and have someone place a crown on their head because it’s an amazing experience,” she said of the competition that was originally founded by a doctor in Ohio. “Everyone is cheering and you just accomplished something.”
For more information about the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, visit mswheelchairamerica.org and be sure to “Like” Ms. Wheelchair America on Facebook. If interested in taking part in a future pageant, email Connors at firstname.lastname@example.org.