It was a different time back in 1982 when my Home Economics teacher suggested I enter the Miss Berkmar High School contest. My peers were cheerleaders and dance champs; the overachiever in me loved the idea of being recognized for something other than class president. And the idea that I could do it – that a person in a wheelchair could be in a beauty pageant – was a novel one. Miss Berkmar was the gateway pageant – I went on to earn several other tiaras before I earned the best title of all: Miss Wheelchair Georgia.
Nearly 30 years later, the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant system still lives on, recognizing women for their accomplishment and potential to use the title to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. The pageant was recently celebrated in a new documentary, “Defining Beauty,” which debuted at the Newport Beach Film Festival in early May. “Defining Beauty” tackles age-old questions about inner vs. outer beauty, following the lives of six women as they prepare for the Miss Wheelchair America 2010 pageant. It won the audience award for best documentary film.
Defining Beauty is just one of many new films cropping up that weave personal stories of disability with societal messages of inclusion and self-expression. “Wretches and Jabberers” follows two men with autism, Tracy Thresher (age 42) and Larry Bissonnette (52), as they travel the world to change attitudes. Born long before the autism diagnosis was commonplace, both men grew up presumed to have mental retardation and faced a lifetime of isolation because they couldn’t communicate freely. The Los Angeles Times calls Larry and Tracy the “rock stars of autism rights,” saying: “The movie follows the men as they travel from their home state of Vermont to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland to change attitudes about people with autism — by showing just how intelligent, communicative and social they can be when given a voice.”
There’s also “My Name is Julius,” which tells the story of Julius Barthoff, a Needham, Mass., resident who lived 100 years with progressive hearing loss as a result of having diphtheria in his infancy. Produced by Caitrin Lynch, associate professor of anthropology at Olin College of Engineering, the film was recently privately screened at Olin.
We haven’t seen a Miss America who uses a wheelchair — yet. But making more films like these will help further break down stereotypes about physical and mental limitations, and inspire a new generation of people with disabilities to make the most of their exceptional lives.