Whitehall woman uses Ms. Wheelchair USA title to advocate for others
Heather Tomko has witnessed the lack of inclusion people with disabilities face her entire life.
Tomko, 29, of Whitehall, was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disease that results in overall muscle weakness. She has been in a wheelchair her entire life.
Growing up, her family would call restaurants to see if they were accessible, only to hear, “Yes. There’s only one step to get in. We’ll help you.”
Her wheelchair weighs 250 pounds and that type of “help” is not safe or comfortable for Tomko.
Within the last year, she began advocating for those with disabilities, to “try and bridge the communication gap” and make sure that “people with disabilities are represented at the table.”
That means, addressing inclusion for those with disabilities at the forefront, not as a later thought, she said.
All of this led Tomko, who laughs that she never thought she’d compete in a pageant, to the stage of the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, in late July where she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA 2018.
“It’s still a bit of a whirlwind,” said Tomko, a 2006 Baldwin High School graduate, as she recounted the week contestants spent in the Akron, Ohio area. They visited the local food bank, watching an adaptive sports demonstration and visiting a local car dealership. All of this was prior to the actual competition. “It’s almost a blur.”
Tomko, who works full time as a research coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Health Policy and Management, keeps busy, attending grad school in the same department.
She has her undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University in mechanical and biomedical engineering.
A friend from college emailed her about the pageant. When she saw that it had a large platform component and realized she wasn’t taking summer courses this year, it seemed like the time was right to go for it.
Tomko completed a paper application to represent Pennsylvania in the competition.
The Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant started 22 years ago as a state competition in Ohio and branched out nearly a decade ago to a become a national competition, said Lowery Lockard, CEO and executive producer of Ms. Wheelchair USA and its sponsor The Dane Foundation.
“The mission is to celebrate the accomplishments of women with disabilities,” Lockard said. “We try to do that by promoting self-confidence, community service and by the glamor of women with disabilities.”
While it’s not a “beauty pageant,” in that there’s no swimsuit competition, Ms. Wheelchair USA does promote confidence, self-care, health and wellness for women with disabilities, Lockard said.
“We do talk about, ‘Hey, it’s OK to want to be beautiful,’” she said.
The contest includes private interviews with judges, giving a platform speech onstage, an evening wear competition and on the spot questions the contestants must answer on stage.
Tomko’s platform is “Increasing inclusion for people with disabilities in their communities.”
“I think there are a lot of great programs that focus on people with disabilities and getting them access to education, to a job and to housing,” she said. “But I think really being in your community is as lot more than that. It’s coffee shops and restaurants and concerts and those are the things that lag behind on accessibility.”
Tomko was a fellow in the Jewish Healthcare Foundation Jonas Salk Health Activist Fellowship program last year. That introduced her to “more formal advocacy.”
Earlier this year, she helped plan an event at the city’s Inclusive Innovation Week with other members of the disability community called All-In Silence, that was meant to be a fun way to promote disability awareness through a silent disco.
She also, in the last year, started an organization “Accessible YOUniverse,” to bring accessibility to the forefront of conversations.
Her platform is something Tomko said she’s been dealing with her whole life on a small scale.
“You can forever talk to businesses one on one, and that’s good, but that doesn’t really change the way we do things,” she said. “Often business owners think that architects know what to do and often architects think that business owners know what to do and it’s just that miscommunication that’s not happening.”
Tomko talks about Uber’s testing of autonomous vehicles and how they’re only doing them on normal cars. She said coming in after to retrofit accessibility is much harder and more expensive and doesn’t always happen.
She also points to the straw she needs to use coming from her Starbucks cup. The major coffee corporation has announced plans to eliminate plastic straws. Yet, Tomko says, she needs them to drink.
Conversations about how to address the needs of those with disabilities should come at the start, not later once a decision has been made, she said.
Much of the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition was a blur for Tomko, who says she’s still trying to take it all in.
“It really just felt very surreal,” she said. “I had spent the whole week with the other women in the pageant and after getting to know them and hearing their platforms, I truly could have imagined any of them winning.”
Tomko, whose an online shopper, did get a fancy dress for the occasion.
It was gold and all sparkles. She had it altered to fit her tiny body perfectly.
While the competition is not a beauty pageant, Tomko also emphasized that it’s important for women with disabilities to feel beautiful.
She even created a blog, The Heather Report , where she shares stories about clothes, makeup, school and the nonmedical side of life with a disability.
What she’s excited about the most with her new crown is the national reach she will have to share her platform with more people.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.