Ms. Wheelchair America turned strong reluctance into a real opportunity

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For much of her young life, Josie Badger has focused on helping others. So the idea of promoting herself as a pageant contestant? A little weird.

"It was a different world," said Ms. Badger, 27, who recently won the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.

The organization celebrates the strong women who pursue life without limits. The emphasis is on self-assurance and goals, and much of the week-long event in Grand Rapids, Mich., involved workshops, presentations and individual conferences with the five-judge panel.

"I walked in with my 'advocacy' hat on, and I had to kind of continue that mind-set because for me, it's about the advocacy and about helping people with disabilities, and I wanted it to stay that way."

But, Ms. Badger admitted, her sparkling crown "is actually pretty cool. I have yet to figure out how you wear it. It must be some kind of art."

Born with congenital myasthenia gravis syndrome, a neurological condition that affects muscle control, Ms. Badger grew up on a farm in Wampum, Lawrence County.

She went from stroller to wheelchair, learning to fit in and excelling at her studies. She was first in her class at Ellwood City High School and an honors grad at Geneva College.

She earned a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently working on her doctorate in health care ethics at Duquesne University.

About 10 years ago, she said, she and her family were having a meal at an Eat 'N Park in Ohio. A woman stopped by to introduce herself as "Ms. Wheelchair Ohio."

"She told me I should try [the pageant], and I said something like 'Oh, thanks, ha ha,' whatever. I kind of shoved it under the mat," Ms. Badger said. It wasn't until she finally accepted her disability, at 18, that she was able to embrace her place in the universe.

"I wanted to pretend I didn't have a disability, but I thank the leaders and mentors who helped me accept who I was and went on to help others," she said.

"I really believe that God has a plan for all of us and that our lives have a purpose. It's something we don't know right away, and I don't want to say that the pageant was my life's goal, but advocacy and helping others is, so this is part of it."

"Josie is very personable, and she thinks very quick on her feet," said Megan Abrams, head of the Pennsylvania pageant. "She's very articulate and eloquent."

Ms. Badger works as a youth counselor at Pittsburgh's PEAL Center. She also recently accepted a second job consulting for Philadelphia-based ACT NOW, an advocacy group that helps those with mental illness.

More than two years ago, when she was working in youth leadership development, she met a young woman who went on to win the Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania title.

At a friend's urging, Ms. Badger decided to enter the competition this year.

"I am not one to put myself in the spotlight; I do a lot of stuff behind the scenes," she said. "But I thought, 'What the heck.' "

She stuck with her platform of youth development and empowerment for persons with disabilities, making her way through rounds of activities and interviews.

"It was pretty stressful in that you knew you were being judged. Then you had to present your platform, which was by far the most stressful part. I'm good at presenting, but not in two minutes."

She said she pretended it was just like being at any other conference and busied herself helping the other contestants.

When the judges called the top five to the stage, hers was the last name announced. The winning moment took her by surprise: "I was so ready to congratulate the next girl," she said.

Besides representing Ms. Wheelchair America at events in the coming year, Ms. Badger will be flying to Zurich, Switzerland, in a few weeks for the One Young World global forum for youth leadership.

She will be accompanied by a personal care attendant. Her service dog will not be making the trip, however.

One of the psychological challenges of living life in a wheelchair and using a ventilator full-time, she said, is the fact that she is never alone.

"Someone is with me all the time, which is wonderful, in a sense, but tricky at times. We all need some time alone, some independence."

"Some days are, physically, better than others, but I'm still going to be me, regardless of whether my arms move that day or not.

"I really hope in my work, and through Ms. Wheelchair America I can further promote youth leadership and help people accept who they are as beautiful people and not just as people with disabilities."

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478.


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