In the fall of 2021, Laurel resident Chandra Smith emerged from three lifesaving amputations of her right leg above the knee, the toes of her left foot and her left hand knowing she was about to enter a world far different from the one she’d known.
Every set of stairs became an impediment, every email and phone call an exercise in creativity, and access to places she’d once frequented would present a challenge.
Smith’s perseverance and fighting spirit were recognized Jan. 14 when she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Maryland 2023 in an event at the Rockville Hilton. Though modeled after traditional beauty pageants, the event focuses on advocacy and leadership, not appearance.
Smith, a 35-year-old IT engineer working in intelligence for the federal government, won the competition in a field of three contestants. She will now advance to the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in Grand Rapids, Michigan from Aug. 28 through Sept. 3. She will compete against about 35 contestants from other states.
It’s a great honor, Smith said, and not one she takes lightly.
“I was very humbled and I was shocked, to say the least,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘OK, with this crown comes great responsibility.’ I’ll definitely be trying to get my message across, making sure that everyone knows that when you make things accessible for those with disabilities, the whole community benefits from it.”
The concept of everyone benefiting from a more accessible world is summarized in the Curb-Cut Effect, a phenomenon defined in a 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review paper by Angela Glover Blackwell. The theory, Smith explained, argues that investing in accessibility, like creating sidewalk ramps to help those in wheelchairs, also helps others, such as people pushing strollers, luggage, riding bikes and running.
“When you design for accessibility, everybody wins,” said Smith, referring to the sloping of sidewalk edges to make them wheelchair accessible. “It’s a win-win situation and what we need is a world with more curb cuts.”
Between now and the national pageant, Smith is expected to use her new title to help educate her community about disabilities. She plans to advocate for more accessible digital documents and websites, adaptive playgrounds and widened doors.
When Smith participates in the national pageant, it will have been nearly two years since she passed out on the final day of a seven-day water fast for religious purposes on Sept. 8, 2021.
Several of her organs started to fail, and she spent time on life support as doctors administered drugs that directed blood from her extremities to her vital organs. She then suffered sepsis, a life-threatening emergency caused when a body responds to infection by attacking its own tissue. Doctors were forced to perform the three amputations.
Now recovered, Smith has begun her advocacy work. She shares accessibility tips each week on her Facebook page, works with local fitness instructors to develop exercise classes for those with physical limitations and is compiling a list of accessible local restaurants.
Not only was winning the state competition meaningful for Smith, but it was also significant to be a part of an event in which organizers, judges and participants were people with disabilities. Still grieving the loss of her former way of life, Smith soon found she was not alone in the fight for a more accessible Maryland.
“It was fun just meeting a community of ladies who all are fighting for disability rights in their own respective communities,” Smith said. “It is not the fact that I’m a wheelchair user that makes me disabled. The environment puts up these barriers.”
Ms. Wheelchair Maryland, which is all volunteer-run, has been in existence for more than 50 years, said Shannon Minnick, the nonprofit’s assistant coordinator. Contestants, who apply through an online application, are interviewed by three judges and deliver speeches. Their performances are then rated on a points scale.
While the competition was tight this year, Smith stood out due to her compelling story, composure, enthusiasm and social media savvy, said head judge Bong Delrosario.
“I hope she takes full advantage of all of her resources, all of her networking skills, and uses her platform for what she believes in,” Delrosario said.
Having advocates who are willing to share their stories and struggles with accessibility is critical, Delrosario said, because not all people with disabilities are able or willing to get involved in political movements.
“Not everyone has a strong voice. Not everyone has that vote of confidence in themselves to speak out. Not everyone is social,” Delrosario said. “That’s why this platform is so important.”
In the coming months, contest organizers plan to raise $10,000 to send Smith to Michigan for the national competition, with the accommodations she needs to travel. The organization has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money.
“I think, with Chandra, she’s going to break down some attitudes and some barriers that need to be broken down in our community,” said Minnick, who herself was Ms. Wheelchair Maryland in 2010. “She wants to change the world.”