Ms. Wheelchair Coverage And Debate Miss The Point
Commentary by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
April 13, 2005
APPLETON, WISCONSIN--We writers love stories with clear battles between good and evil, where it's easy to pick out the "good guys" and the "bad guys".
Two of Wisconsin's largest newspapers have managed to frame the recent Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin controversy in simple terms, while pitting people with disabilities against each other and avoiding the larger, more important issues they ought to be addressing.
In this story, the good guy -- or in this case 'gal' -- would be Janeal Lee, a high school math teacher who has muscular dystrophy and uses a motorized scooter most of the time. Lee was crowned 2005 Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin in January. She was recruited to campaign last winter by none other than 2004 Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, Gina Hackel -- who is now being cast as the villain in this tale.
The pageant's board of directors, led by state coordinator Hackel, took Lee's crown away last month after the Post-Crescent published a story with a picture showing her standing up in the classroom she teaches. The board pointed to pageant rules that require Ms. Wheelchair to always use her mobility device in public.
Lee said Hackel, the board, and even national pageant officials had known full well that she sometimes stands and can walk for short distances. She said she saw no reason to hide her level of disability or ability for the sake of appearances.
Lee has a valid point. People with disabilities struggle every day with society's narrow views of disability.
Coverage of Lee's removal has renewed a global discussion on the Internet and in email disability groups about what is 'disabled enough' when it comes to such competitions, Special Olympics and Paralympics included. I've found that most people are lining up to condemn the pageant for apparently discriminating against Lee for simply being who she is.
But it's important that we not allow that discussion to divert attention from the bigger issue most of the media minimizes or totally ignores.
Lee says her crown was taken away after she confronted Hackel over a series of anti-discrimination lawsuits Hackel had filed against 26 local businesses for allegedly violating the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Hackel said she filed the suits when she got no relief from those businesses over her concerns that they were not accessible to patrons with disabilities.
Lee said Hackel's lawsuits were making it difficult for her students to raise money from those businesses for her to travel to the national competition in July. She also said the suits also made it more difficult for her to be an effective advocate for people with disabilities in her role as Ms. Wheelchair.
Local editorials and columnists have described this as a petty kind of 'grudge match' with Lee and businesses as victims on one side, and Hackel and the Ms. Wheelchair pageant on the other.
A Journal-Sentinel editorial went so far as to describe Lee's conflict with Hackel and pageant officials as being made worse by a heroic 'battle' with her own disability. "Lee's struggle is no less inspiring because she hasn't succumbed totally to muscular dystrophy," it read.
But Lee is no victim in this. While the pageant's rules may be out-dated and may even compromise its own stated mission of advocating for women with disabilities, she nonetheless should have known what those rules were when she agreed to the competition and volunteered to represent the organization.
The businesses are not victims, either.
The newspapers have portrayed Hackel as a kind of ADA bandit, holding up innocent, law-abiding businesses. Mike Nichols of the Journal-Sentinel wrote that Hackel "blindsided" the businesses by filing "all sorts of federal lawsuits".
If the businesses were blindsided, it's their own fault. It's not as if the ADA has been a secret weapon that people with disabilities have kept in their legal holsters for the past 15 years.
The truth is, people with disabilities have been in the unfortunate position of having to take businesses to court -- or threaten to do so -- in order to get them to comply with federal law. Hackel and her attorney sought no money from those firms. They just wanted changes made so people with disabilities could spend their money and do other business there like everyone else.
Last month, 13 of those businesses agreed that it would be in their own best interest to make changes to their premises if only to avoid lengthy and costly legal battles.
In my book, both Hackel and Lee are heroes because they advocate, each in her own way, for her rights and those of other people with disabilities.
Let's not let the media further divide the disability community or turn either woman into villains in a story that is not so simple.
"Dispute over level of disability roils Ms. Wheelchair pageant" (South Bend Tribune)
"Steve Kabelowsky column: Lee is already a champ" (Post-Crescent)
"Editorial: Oh, those abled disabled" (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
"Mike Nichols column: The wheels of injustice turn quickly" (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
"Ms. Wheelchair America comment on Former Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2005" (Ms. Wheelchair America Program)
"Ms. Wheelchair Suits Prompt Wisconsin Businesses To Address Access Problems" -- April 5, 2005 (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)