For ICS member Jessica De La Rosa, participating in Ms. Wheelchair New York is all about helping people. Inspired by a friend who competed in the event last year, Ms. De La Rosa won the 2016 competition on a platform of helping kids with disabilities in schools.
Jessica, an ICS member since 2007, saw first-hand how hard it is for young people to be fully integrated into their school environment. While not related by blood, Jessica has a “niece” and two “nephews” with Muscular Dystrophy who attend New York City schools. Jessica saw them made to feel like they were other than normal because classroom teachers failed to do even simple things to make them feel welcomed and a part of the school community.
“It is a form of bullying,” Jessica told me. “The kids would come home crying and upset because they were not allowed to do what all of the other kids were.” Jessica feels strongly that 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed we should and can do better. She entered the Miss Wheelchair NY Competition to gain a broader platform to speak about these important issues. “At first I thought it was just the kids in my extended family that have these issues. After asking around, I found out that it happens in a lot of schools.”
Luckily for the kids in her family, they have an informed, assertive advocate in Jessica. In her experience, there is a lot of fear and ignorance in the school system. “Everyone is so afraid of liability, they would rather not have kids with disabilities than do a little extra work to include them.”
Jessica shared a story that inspired her to get involved. One of the children in her family was told they could not attend a 5th grade class trip. Her family member had met all of the criteria for going on the trip – good grades and good behavior; the only difference was disability. Jessica stepped in and spoke with the teacher. She learned that the teacher was not sure how to handle the situation and did not know who to ask for help – but Jessica did. She made a couple of phone calls to the place the class was going and everything was taken care of. “This kind of fear is holding back kids I love. People confuse disability with inability.”
Jessica points out that peanut allergies are hugely prevalent these days and lots of preparations and precautions are taken to ensure that children with allergies are accommodated. Kids who use wheelchairs should be given the same consideration.
“The teacher would not take a kid with a peanut allergy to a peanut factory on a class trip; they would automatically make that call. But they do not seem to know what to do with young people in wheelchairs.”
For Jessica, who believes we need more advocates in the world and that we need to teach young people to be strong advocates, Ms. Wheelchair New York is a perfect fit. The contest is not about beauty or looks. “I could have showed up in a paper bag,” she said. The event is judged on your platform – your ideas to improve the lives of people with disabilities.
Held annually in Albany, Ms. Wheelchair New York brings together women of all ages and disabilities. For Jessica, that was the best part. “I am not sure how the judges do their jobs, there were so many different women with such wonderful platforms.”
Jessica will be Ms. Wheelchair NY for one year. During her reign she plans to work with local schools to improve accessibility and attitudes. In addition, she will compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America contest in August. As part of her Ms. Wheelchair New York obligations, Jessica has to raise $2000 to enter the Ms. Wheelchair America contest and additional funds to support her travel to the national event. You can visit Jessica’s Facebook page to learn more about her and how to support her efforts.
Jessica hopes to inspire others to get involved in advocacy and combat the stigma people with disabilities experience. “We need people to get involved, especially young people. People with disabilities are not going anywhere, we are just like everybody else and we need advocates to remind people about that.”