Monday, August 04, 2008

Her new role is fighting old label

That's the title of this interview with Michelle Colvard, 32, who was recently crowned Ms. Wheelchair America. Ms Colvard, who was born with spina bifida, has a master's degree in public health and is the executive director of the mayor's office for people with disabilities in Houston. In her interview, she says that the Ms. Wheelchair competition is not a beauty pageant, but aims to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes about women who use wheelchairs and women with disabilities more generally. She would like everyone, but especially children, to see Ms. Wheelchair America as "a strong, confident, attractive woman who just happens to have a disability." Here is part of what she says about the effects of negative stereotyping and the representation of women with disabilities in the media:

Q: What are some misconceptions about women with disabilities?

A: They're two main ways that the media portray women who have disabilities. It's either kind of passive, needing help, victim, suffering. You hear a lot of those words, wheelchair-bound, these negative-word connotations ... On the other hand, women with disabilities who have done pretty well for themselves are put up on a pedestal. I think sometimes that's a bad thing, too.

Q: How do stereotypes translate to how the public treats people with disabilities?

A: I think people have good intentions and want to help. I will be in a Wal-Mart and somebody will come up behind me and start pushing me. And I'll say, "No, I've really got it." And they'll argue with you about it. But on the other hand, if you see somebody who looks like they clearly need some help, like they're struggling, you should help them.

There's lots more. And quite a lot of discussion in the comments section.

See also Kay Olsen's reference to the interview in this post over at The Gimp Parade.