WAUSAU, Wis. – Elegant in a chocolate-brown, strapless taffeta gown, Janeal Lee (search) beamed as she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin (search) in her three-wheeled scooter, her tiara sparkling in her hair, a bouquet of yellow roses in her lap.
Gifts were heaped on her, too — a new scooter, jewelry, a two-night stay at a Wisconsin resort — and there were hugs of congratulations, lots of pictures and a Marine to escort the 30-year-old math teacher with muscular dystrophy (search) off stage.
Just weeks after the joy of that January night at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Lee has been stripped of the title — and asked to return the prizes, including the new scooter — after she was seen in a newspaper photograph standing up. Now the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant is in an uproar over just how disabled a woman must be to wear the crown.
A national advocacy group complained that the dethroning reflects "backward thinking" on the part of the pageant.
"This policy makes no sense," said Andy Imparato, president of the Washington-based American Association of People with Disabilities. "I think it was interesting the story broke on April Fools' Day. I think a lot of us who saw the headlines thought it was an April Fools' joke."
The Kaukauna High teacher was shown standing in her classroom in a picture carried in a supplement to The Post-Crescent newspaper of Appleton. The pageant organization said candidates for the crown have to "mostly be seen in the public" using their wheelchairs or scooters. Lee says she can walk up to 50 feet on a good day and stand while teaching but uses a scooter as her main way to get around.
"The treatment I've received from the board doesn't say much for the organization," Lee said this week.
But Gina Hackel, who won the 2004 Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair title and is the coordinator of the pageant this year, said: "The eligibility criteria is very specific, just like Special Olympics. Kids who don't have cognitive disabilities are not eligible for Special Olympics and nobody has a problem with that."
If Ms. Wheelchair America contestants can get from A to B without a wheelchair or a scooter, "how can they be Ms. Wheelchair anything?" Hackel asked.
In the furor over Lee's dethroning, the runner-up in the pageant refused to accept the crown, Lee's sister, Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota, withdrew from the national competition in protest. And a pageant leader in Minnesota resigned.
Kim Jerman, the second runner-up in the Wisconsin pageant, accepted the title. Jerman, 30, who has cerebral palsy and has never been able to walk, now advances to the national pageant July 19-24 at Albany, N.Y.
"I feel that it is unfortunate on how I received the title," she said Wednesday through an interpreter because her broken speech is not easily understood. But she said people who can walk should not be allowed to compete: "It is not fair for me who needs a wheelchair all day. It is named Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair for a reason. It is not named Ms. Disability."
Ms. Wheelchair America, a pageant now in its 33rd year, is a nonprofit organization. Executive director Pat O'Bryant refused to identify any of the organization's sponsors, given the uproar, but said there are no wheelchair companies among them.
Contestants are judged on their accomplishments, their self-perception and their communication and "projection" skills in a series of personal and on-stage interviews and speeches, organizers said. Beauty plays "zero" role, Hackel said.
The winner receives various prizes, and spends her yearlong reign making public appearances and giving interviews to promote the achievements of the disabled and bring attention to the barriers they face.
Imparato, whose group has 110,000 members with all kinds of disabilities, said the Ms. Wheelchair competition is promoted as a leadership development program for women with disabilities.
"To me, it doesn't make sense to have a policy to limit a leadership program to people who can't get out of a wheelchair," he said. "To me, it is bizarre policy. On some level, they are reflecting some backward thinking."
Bill Freeman, president of the American Disability Association, based in Birmingham, Ala., said the dispute is not all bad, because it has led to a meaningful conversation about disabilities.
"Who can say someone who can stand for 15 minutes is less disabled than someone who can't stand at all?" he asked. "Why do we care so that someone might be able to spend 10 or 15 or maybe even 20 percent of their time on their feet when at the end of that time, whether they like it or not, they return to that chair?"