- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

WAUSAU, Wis. - Elegant in a strapless taffeta gown, Janeal Lee beamed as she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, her tiara sparkling in her hair and a bouquet of yellow roses in her lap.

Gifts were heaped on her, too — a new scooter, jewelry, a two-night stay at a Wisconsin resort — and there were hugs of congratulations, lots of pictures and a Marine to escort the 30-year-old math teacher with muscular dystrophy offstage.

Weeks after the joy of that January night in Green Bay, Miss Lee was stripped of the title — and asked to return the prizes, including the new scooter — after she was seen in a newspaper photograph standing up.

Now the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant is in an uproar over just how disabled a woman must be to wear the crown.

“This policy makes no sense,” said Andy Imparato, president of the Washington-based American Association of People with Disabilities.

A photo in the Post-Crescent newspaper of Appleton, Wis., showed Miss Lee standing in her Kaukauna High classroom. The pageant organization said candidates for the crown have to “mostly be seen in the public” using their wheelchairs or scooters. Miss Lee says she can walk up to 50 feet on a good day and stand while teaching, but uses a scooter as her main way to get around.

Gina Hackel, who won the 2004 Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair title and was the coordinator of the pageant this year, said: “The eligibility criteria is very specific, just like Special Olympics.”

If Ms. Wheelchair America contestants can walk, “how can they be Ms. Wheelchair anything?” Miss Hackel asked.

In the furor over Miss Lee’s dethroning, the runner-up in the pageant refused to accept the crown. Kim Jerman, the second runner-up in the Wisconsin pageant, accepted the title. She advances to the national pageant July 19 to 24 at Albany, N.Y.

“I feel that it is unfortunate on how I received the title,” said Miss Jerman, 30, who has cerebral palsy and has never been able to walk. She said awarding the crown to someone who can walk “is not fair for me who needs a wheelchair all day. It is named Ms. Wisconsin Wheelchair for a reason. It is not named Ms. Disability.”

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