Stahlstown woman to compete for title of Ms. Wheelchair America

| Monday, July 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Since injuring her spinal cord in a car accident in 2007, Katie Smith has lived her life in a wheelchair, but she thrives on discussing her disability.

“When a child on a street asks me why I'm in a wheelchair, I will entertain every question I can,” said Smith, 27, of Stahlstown.

Smith will entertain questions from a panel of judges next week when she travels to Houston to represent Pennsylvania in Ms. Wheelchair America, a national pageant that recognizes the accomplishments and goals of women who use wheelchairs.

“It's not a beauty pageant by any means,” Smith said. “It's an advocacy position.”

Smith initially heard about the pageant several years ago through her involvement with a wheelchair rugby league. Competitors from a Michigan team and Shelly Loose, president of the national pageant, encouraged Smith to try out for the Pennsylvania pageant.

With her class schedule at Seton Hill University, Smith did not have the time. But after graduating in May 2012, she felt compelled to give the competition a try.

Smith competed against one other contestant in Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania in Bradford in March and won the title after interviewing with judges and giving a two-minute speech.

Megan Abrams, president and state coordinator of Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania, said Smith seemed like “the kind of person who would make a great advocate and teacher.”

At Ms. Wheelchair America, Smith will compete against women from 31 states. She will be interviewed by judges and give a two-minute speech, which she said will focus on “creating a climate of understanding” between individuals with and without disabilities.

“There are all these really big issues in the disability world, like employment, accessible housing and accessible physical activity, and they need to change for us to be functional members of society,” she said. “Before we can get to those issues, a root-level connection needs to happen with people.”

To afford the trip, Smith has held fundraisers, and MB Bride and Special Occasion in Greensburg offered to sponsor her by providing her formal dress.

Owner Maja Pederson said the store occasionally sponsors customers when help is needed, and she believes Smith's story presents a great opportunity.

“Every customer that comes in here has a story, and hers was just exceptional,” Pederson said.

Smith appreciates the chance to share her ideas and concerns about disability challenges.

“(The pageant) gives me this platform, a stage to draw attention from people,” she said. “They see a shiny crown and sash — it catches their eye. Then you can really open their mind.”

Smith's reign as Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania requires her to make at least two public appearances a month, such as a parade, fundraiser or a conference related to disabilities.

If she wins the national title, she will travel across the country to make public appearances, meet with advocacy groups and participate in media interviews to heighten awareness.

No matter the outcome, Smith plans to visit groups and go to events this summer to educate others about disabilities.

She will attend the Pennsylvania Community on Transition Conference in State College, and her rugby team, the Pittsburgh SteelWheelers, will give a demonstration at The Woodlands camp in Wexford.

A certified elementary and special education teacher, Smith will return to substitute teaching in the fall at Mt. Pleasant Area and Ligonier Valley school districts and the Valley School of Ligonier.

Even during school hours, Smith said she tries to spread awareness about disabilities.

“At the beginning of class, I explain to students why I'm in a wheelchair,” she said. “I try to get everybody to ask a question; otherwise, that's sitting right in the front of their heads. They want to know, and I feel that same way about adults. ... There's a general curiosity, and people need to know about it.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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