Advocacy a Focus for New Ms. Wheelchair America with LGMD

McArthur was crowned Ms. Wheelchair American at the pageant in Grand Rapids, Mich., this August. (Glen Lipton Photography)

Alexandra (“Alex”) McArthur was a bundle of energy even before she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair America last month. Now she’s more energized than ever to work on behalf of people with disabilities.

McArthur, 22, graduated cum laude in 2009 with a degree in history from Davidson College in North Carolina, and now is serving a two-year fellowship at the school, which is north of her home in Charlotte. Although she originally planned to go on to law school, her attention now is on fulfilling the responsibilities of her new title and all the possibilities that come with it.

McArthur was named Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina in April before heading to the Ms. Wheelchair America competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 14. She didn’t expect to come away the big winner.

“It was just such an incredible experience to be sitting wheel to wheel with 28 other women of such talent — some of them my lifelong friends,” says McArthur, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair.  “It was very emotional.”

McArthur was the fifth of five finalists to have her name called, after all the runners-up also had been called. “Even up to that point I had been thinking, ‘It’s okay if I don’t win. Just the experience of being here is winning.’ Then I heard my name called.

“When the names of the runners up were called, I fully expected to be among them. I almost couldn’t comprehend what had happened when I was the last one left.”

She envisions a multitude of good things coming from winning the title. “It will help me expand my network by being able to talk with employers about hiring and retaining people with disabilities. It will also help me expand my contacts in the disability community.

“I want to communicate with people with disabilities in a different way. I’m a representative and spokesperson, but also a student learning about what the disability community wants,” she says. “That’s a very important part of what it means to be Ms. Wheelchair America. I have to be open to learning more – to learning different ways of bringing different segments of the community together by knowing the needs that exist.”

McArthur says her world has been turned upside down, but in a positive way. She believes more doors may be opening for her, and she’s keeping her options open.  One possibility would be working in an advocacy position for a nonprofit organization.

“I’m very passionate about women’s issues, as well as those of people with disabilities,” she notes.  “I think there are ways to advocate on a larger scale, and help people with disabilities in the process.”

Her parents couldn’t be on hand to share her Ms. Wheelchair win because they were helping her sister Park (another outstanding scholar) move to New York City to complete a nine-month art fellowship. Park also has LGMD.

Nonetheless, Alex says the family was able to watch the pageant on an Internet videocast, and when she was crowned the winner, “there apparently were many yells and screams of joy.”

She explains: “In my life, the importance of relationships and seeking mentors and support is paramount.  I owe what I am to my family and friends who have supported me. But it takes time and initiative to make those connections. And it’s important for all to be able to share the triumphs with others around them.”

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