Sara Canali recently participated in the Ms. Wheelchair Pageant at the Hilton Carillon Park Hotel in St. Petersburg.
There were nine contestants from the state in the pageant, held April 5-6. The event is not a beauty pageant; rather, it is based on the contestants’ platform about disability awareness.
This was the first time Canali participated.
She spoke about how important it is for colleges, universities and programs for people with learning disabilities to provide wheelchair-accessible transportation. In her experiences with the local college, she said, she was unable to participate in field trips with the art club because the college only has regular vans and no wheelchair-accessible van available to accommodate her.
“My grandparents can bring me, but that’s not being independent,” Canali said.
Highlands County is limited in transportation services for people with disabilities.
Vans are available for medical appointments or other health needs, but there are no services for people in wheelchairs who need to shop or work, let alone obtain a higher education, according to Canali.
“I took a tour at College Living Experience School in Jacksonville. They provide assistance for students with disabilities for academics and living skills. They don’t have wheelchair-accessible vans, either,” she said.
They take students to the college, grocery shopping and social outings. They also teach students how to take public transportation. Staff is available to assist with trips to doctors.
The college focuses primarily on individuals with learning disabilities and not those with physical disabilities. They do assist people with cerebral palsy.
Canali has cerebral palsy and a processing disorder; she needs to use a wheelchair in order to get around.
“That program should meet all needs including physical disabilities, not just focus on learning disabilities,” Canali said.
During the contest, Canali met Mayra Paulina Reyes, Ms. Wheelchair of 2011. They have been friends through email.
“We have a lot in common.” Canali said. “Mayra read my article when I got my GED in 2010, and she’s also going for her GED and has cerebral palsy. She tried to help me by giving me confidence to give my speech. So we’re helping each other.”
The next day, Canali and the other contestants met with a coach to practice giving their speeches. They also heard speakers on women’s health, health fitness, disability policies and judging sessions on one-and-one.
“I knew one of the judges that I haven’t seen in 10 years” Canali stated. “She is my friend Robyn, who used to work at Shriners when I was a patient there. She is one of my role models. She has CP, graduated with a B.A. in journalism, does paralympics, and is adaptive sports coach at a local YMCA. I met some people who have graduated from college with a degree and they are inspiring as well.”
Later that evening, the contestants gave their short speeches at a ceremony.
Camile Araujo was crowned Ms. Wheelchair 2013. She served 11 years for the Miami Dade Police Department. She was in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down.
“Even though I didn’t win, I had a good time, a great learning experience and met many inspiring people. I hope to attend Ms. Wheelchair Pageant next year,” Canali said.
Canali was sponsored at the contest by Central Barber Styling, Special STARS of Highlands County and Charla Ellerker, disabilities specialist counselor of South Florida State College.