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Crowning Achievement - Ms. Wheelchair America promotes power through participation. Story by Nancy Kolsti
Summer 2005      

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Juliette Rizzo ('94 M.J.) remembers watching other children out the window as they went to school and played soccer at the field across the street -- things she couldn't do because of constant pain.

At age 3, she had developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes swelling, pain and stiffness of the joints.

Juliette Rizzo

As Ms. Wheelchair America, Juliette Rizzo spoke at American Airlines about her experiences as a person with a disability and the mentors who supported her. She was honored with a reception at the company’s C.R. Smith Museum.

"I missed out on a typical childhood. I did not start going to school until the second grade, and even then, I only went part time and studied at home the rest of the time," Rizzo says. "The closest I came to playing soccer was wearing a soccer dress my grandmother made for me."

Rizzo later developed two other chronic medical conditions -- scleroderma, which causes hardening of skin and blood vessels, and fibromyalgia, characterized by pain in muscles, ligaments and tendons.

When she began using scooters and wheelchairs 14 years ago, she decided to educate herself about her disabilities.

"After years of reaching inside myself and adjusting to being a person with a disability, I realized how important it was to share the knowledge I had gained," she says.

During the past year, Rizzo has shared that knowledge with thousands of people as Ms. Wheelchair America 2005.


Juggling duties

Open to women ages 21 to 60, the Ms. Wheelchair program is not a beauty pageant. State pageant representatives participate in the national pageant and are judged on platform speech presentations and interviews.

Rizzo was the director of communications for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., when she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair America last summer. Since then, she has traveled throughout the nation to educate others about disabilities, making as many as five appearances a week.

She has served as a panelist for the Washington, D.C., transit authority, making recommendations about accessibility in public transportation, and has spoken with businesses about accessibility in employment.

In the November election she assisted voters with disabilities in using touch screen voting technology.

Throughout her reign, she has appeared at conferences, concerts, grand openings and tradeshows. She was a guest at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Rose Bowl and two presidential inaugural balls. Along the way she has shared her message with celebrities including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and boxing promoter Don King.

Rizzo, now the special assistant for communications in the Secretary's Office of the U.S. Department of Education, juggles her Ms. Wheelchair America duties while still working her regular job. She books many of her public appearances herself.

"I'm trying to visit as many states as I possibly can," she says. "My crown isn't about me -- it's about reaching out to empower other people with disabilities. Even though we have made so many strides, significant participation gaps still exist in employment, education, community activities and politics."


Effecting change

Rizzo became familiar with the Ms. Wheelchair program shortly after she received her master of journalism degree in public relations from UNT with a rehabilitation studies minor. She coordinated the Ms. Wheelchair Texas pageant before moving to Maryland, and entered the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland pageant "after being told I had natural speaking and leadership abilities."

"I realized how much I could use the title for advocacy," she says.

Rizzo represented Maryland in the 2004 national pageant, choosing as her platform "Power Through Participation: Illuminating Opportunities for People with Disabilities."

"Participation means more than just having a community presence -- it's the realization of each person's identity and dreams," she says. "A huge misconception is that people with disabilities live very different lives than those without disabilities, but disability is a natural part of human experience. A person with a disability isn't necessarily brave or courageous, but just going through daily activities."

Rizzo will crown the next Ms. Wheelchair America July 24 and plans to continue her advocacy work, raising awareness of the health and fitness needs of people with disabilities. She's already discussed the topic on Discovery Health Channel's National Body Challenge series.
But she will miss the "outpouring of affection and support" she has received at her public appearances.

"It's been wonderful to effect change in communities where no one has acted for those with disabilities. That has truly touched my heart," she says.


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