Jennifer Adams, recently crowned Ms. Wheelchair Washington, loves an audience.
Between engagements for her public-speaking business, pageant events and populating her YouTube channel, the 33-year-old Tacoma woman stays busy.
Adams was born with partial limbs and has used a wheelchair her whole life. Teasing she experienced in her youth led her to seek out ways to tell her story. Now, 17 years after her first public-speaking gig, the Chehalis native wears a crown.
Adams will be competing in the Ms. Wheelchair America competition in Houston beginning Monday. She hopes the pageant, along with its message of acceptance, will become a household name.
Question: What does the competition entail?
Answer: It’s more about celebrating accomplishments than about competition. There’s an application process, and a series of interviews. Then candidates give their platform speeches, and a winner is crowned.
Q: What’s your platform?
A: It’s called the Power of Words, and it’s an anti-bullying platform. I speak at schools, learning centers and youth centers. I share my story of being born with partial limbs, and that I grew up in a small town when the ADA law (Americans with Disabilities Act) was new and that I experienced being teased and bullied in school.
I also share how I had friends all throughout my life who were positive and supportive. They have encouraged and helped me become successful by believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I share with the youth how they can empower each other through positive words and kind action.
Q: How did your experiences with bullying influence your platform?
A: Bullying is an issue with kids in general. They usually respond negatively to things they either don’t understand or think are out of place or awkward. Young kids tend to respond with a primal response instead of thinking it through.
The bullying of me happened mostly in middle school, when everyone’s starting to label each other whether you’re cool or not cool. I had three or four friends, and was very isolated. At that time, I didn’t see any effort being made for that to change, so that’s why I have a passion to bring that change.
Q: How did you get into pageants?
A: This is the only pageant I’ve ever entered, but this has been a dream of mine since I was very young. I’ve always wanted to be a public speaker, so this is something I’m naturally wired for. I found out about it when I was 20 and I didn’t run until I was 33. This year it felt like it was time. Prior to the pageant there were times when I felt like I was trying so hard to get somewhere but was spinning my wheels. The pageant gave me that lift to do what I’ve been waiting to do for a really long time.
Q: What do you enjoy about public speaking?
A: It’s seeing the fruit of my story impacting other people’s lives and vice versa. It’s so thrilling to take a risk and be vulnerable and share my story, and then watch it open peoples’ eyes and inspire them.
My message is that we all have limitations, but if you press beyond your limitations, that’s where fulfillment and life’s purpose lies. I overcame my own limitations and became successful and happy in life. Sharing that inspires people so they can overcome their own limitations.
Q: What motivated you to start Shift, your public-speaking business?
A: It was kind of a crossroads in my life. Prior to that I got my master’s degree in youth counseling, and then I worked in education for two years, and then lost my position to budget cuts. I had always wanted a career as a public speaker, and I decided there was no better time to start than when I had a completely clean slate.
Q: What’s your goal if you win the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant?
A: My platform is still going to be anti-bullying, but it’s going to be broader. I want to advocate for the inclusion model of education within public school systems all over the nation. The special education system in public schools is very antiquated. There’s still a lot of segregation where a student can spend all day in a special education classroom, instead of interacting with their peers.
Statistics show special education students flourish when they’re in mainstream classrooms because it challenges them in a different way than in a special education classroom. It helps them flourish socially, too. They are more likely to succeed when they become independent adults, because isolation keeps them from socializing with their peers. There are some cases where it’s not better for kids to be in a mainstream classroom, but I would say 85 percent of special education students could be fully included in the mainstream classroom and do well.
Q: How would this model look at the classroom level?
A: The whole school needs to be on board, because it requires teachers to create lesson plans that are modified for the students with disabilities. The special education staff would be in the classroom with students. Also, you create a mentorship model so mainstream students are paired with special education students to bridge the gap in their education process and be a peer mentor.
Q: Where do you start with a goal like this?
A: By going into the school and meeting with the staff and the student leadership. If you get them on board, it’s off to the races from there. It will also be a process of affecting the Legislature, and talking with people in politics who advocate for education and have the power to change the laws of education.
Q: What else do you hope to achieve as Ms. Wheelchair Washington?
A: I also have a passion for integrated arts. I love to sing, dance, act, and I love to oil paint.
The arts community is very challenging to include. My passion would be to encourage integrated arts all over the country. I’m starting right here in Tacoma. I’ve just been using the opportunity with my platform to turn venues into an opportunity to perform, and I’m hoping to get others on board and not limit the arts community to just able-bodied people.
My goal is to get people to see everyone as someone who has an ability or a gift to offer.
Q: What advice would you give other young female wheelchair users?
A: Don’t focus on what you can’t do, but focus on what you can do and what you’re passionate about.
Leah Traxel: 253 597-8670