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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wendy Wood: Ms. Wheelchair Illinois ; 2011: a chance to change public perception about people with disabilities

Disabling discrimination
Pageant winner seeks to dispel myths
April 24, 2011
The Telegraph
Wendy Wood plans to use her new title as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois as a chance to change public perception about people with disabilities.

"Discrimination often stems from ignorance and a fear of the unknown," Wood, 26, said. "For people with disabilities, fear is perpetuated by the often unrealistic and stereotypical portrayal of them by the media. We have a long way to go on the road to equality."

On March 19, the Bethalto resident was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Illinois, making her eligible to compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America the week of Aug. 1 in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I had not done any advocacy for a while and was looking to get back into it," Wood, who has multiple sclerosis, said. "I was searching Google for disability advocacy and this popped up. I contacted the coordinator, sent in an application, and they decided I would be a good candidate for the pageant."

Wood's platform is "Changing the perception of disabilities in the media."

"Even when the attention is positive, it is sometimes still this 'pat you on the head and treat you like a child,'" she said. "Whether they realize it or not, they are perpetuating a stereotype by breeding pity. Pity breeds discrimination."

From a young age, Wood decided to put her wheels in motion and do her part to look out for equal rights for those with disabilities, serving as secretary, board member and independent living specialist for Impact.

"I have been involved with IMPACT since I was 13," she said. "I was there during all of the cuts, and we really had to fight to keep the program alive. As a person who uses those services, I know how important they are."

She stresses the importance of finding a support group with like-minded goals.

"IMPACT has been instrumental in shaping who I am as a person," she said. "Before I got involved, I shied away from my disability. They were the first people to let me know that having a disability made me unique and it does not have to be a negative thing."

Wood has a busy May scheduled. She is graduating with her bachelor's in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville May 7, and will be marrying her fiance, Gregory Settles, on May 14. In July, she will be in Chicago, participating in both the Disability Pride Parade and the Abilities Expo.

With the support of her family, including her mother, Kim Elliott, her three younger siblings, and her grandparents, Ed and Dorothy Wood and Achie and Norma Elliott, Wood says she has ambitious long-term expectations for herself.

"I want to write for a magazine, newspaper or online publication," she said. "Eventually, I want to start my own publication."

This summer, the focus will be on raising the $1,850 needed to compete in the 40th annual Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, including a fund-raising mouse race and bake sale May 20.

Wood's mother said her daughter would make a terrific Ms. Wheelchair America.

"She definitely speaks her mind about disabilities," Kim Elliott said. "She is a great advocate."

To become a sponsor, contact Wendy Wood at wood.freelancing@gmail.com.

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