Baton Rouge, LA — A local woman who says she was never interested in pageants will represent Louisiana with a chance at a national crown.
Anita Gray will compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant later this month. She is the current Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana, but she is also the first.
Gray never thought she would become an advocate for something. That changed late in 1999. She was in her car, stopped at a light, when she was rear-ended by someone driving 70 miles per hour.
She was paralyzed from the waist down.
"I was so clueless about actually what it entailed, the life of a paraplegic," she said. "I was pretty blown away."
Gray spent four months in the hospital, doing intensive rehabilitation work.
"The toughest part of rehab for me, besides the hospital food," she joked, before turning serious, "was probably the emotional part, was to actually be okay with accepting that I was disabled.
"I felt guilty for wanting to accept it. Which may sound funny, because when people think rehab, they think that, 'oh, they're going to teach you how to walk again, they're going to get you whole again.' And I had to be okay with not wanting to take it that far."
While she re-learned how to sit up straight and other basic functions, she thought about how her injury would affect the people around her.
"I didn't want to be a burden to my parents," she said.
She became determined to live on her own, to learn new ways to do everything she used to.
"It was very important," she stated. "Emotionally, physically; I can't even express how important it was. It was everything to me."
Gray currently lives in her own apartment, and gets by with tools and adaptive technology.
She turned her desire to live life on her own terms into a mission, mentoring other people with disabilities. She started a support group at Baton Rouge Rehab Hospital, educating people about waivers provided by the state government, and groups such as LATAN.
"There's a lot of programs, sometimes people don't know about them, in our state, that are there to assist people with disabilities to be able to get out into the community," she mentioned.
Gray worked with an advocacy organization for a while, but it stopped operating, and she felt limited by circumstance.
"I really didn't feel like I had a window, or a means of getting out to talk to people about what it's like to be disabled, what it's like to acquire a disability as an adult," she stated.
At an abilities expo last year in Texas, someone told her that she should run for Ms. Wheelchair Texas. She had never heard of it before, so she researched it and checked to see if there was a Louisiana chapter. When she found none, she went to the national organization and created one.
"It was a really empowering thing for women with physical disabilities," Gray decided. "It was something positive, and it was something that could really enrich the (life) of a woman."
Since she founded the chapter, she automatically became the first woman to earn he title Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana, as well as the tiara and sash that go with it. She has met with state legislators to educate them on issues related to the disabled community, and she visits schools to give talks or read to students.
"They automatically ask me if I'm a princess, or if I'm a queen," she said of the students' reaction to her. "It's pretty funny."
Gray claimed that, even though she tries her hardest to live life on her own terms, she has gotten better about asking for help if she needs it.
"I'm fine with being okay with not walking. I'm fine with being okay with having to drive with hand controls. I'm fine with being okay with using adaptive equipment. Because, whatever it takes for me to live my life, that's what I want to do."
Gray will travel to Houston for the Ms. Wheelchair America 2014 pageant, beginning July 15. The pageant features two main competitions: a speech, and a question-and-answer session. She admits to some nervousness.
"I've been more making sure I've been reading and educating myself, that I've got my facts and my dates down for the ADA law," she said.
No matter how she rates there, Gray has committed to run the Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana chapter for the next two years, including organizing the first Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana pageant next year.