‘It’s not a beauty pageant; it’s about advocacy’

A combination of tears and smiles spread across the faces of contestants and audience members at Baton Rouge’s first Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana pageant on Sunday afternoon at the Baton Rouge Rehabilitation Hospital, which ended with the coronation of a 29-year-old college student.

About seven years ago, Leah Hoffpauir lost much of the functionality in her arms and legs in a summer camp diving accident. On Sunday, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana.

And come August, she’ll compete for the Ms. Wheelchair America crown in Long Beach, Calif., along with dozens of other women from states across the nation.

But Sunday’s pageant wasn’t just about the eventual winner.

Anita Gray, 42, hatched the idea for the competition a little more than a year ago because Louisiana needed as many avenues as possible to advocate for people with disabilities, she said.

It’s been 12 years since Gray last experienced the freedom of walking, a privilege stolen from her when she suffered a paralyzing spine injury in a car crash. It took at least a year for Gray to come to terms with having to get around by wheelchair. But ever since she did, she’s worked to advocate for people with disabilities, she said.

In the fall of 2012, Gray approached Ms. Wheelchair America organizers about introducing the competition to Louisiana. She had the choice of organizing a pageant or crowning herself the first Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana. She chose the latter, and embarked on a mission to educate Louisianans about not only the pageant itself but also the challenges people with disabilities face daily, such as stairs and non-continuous sidewalks.

“It was a little bit difficult at first because no one had heard of Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana,” Gray said Sunday.

Eventually, she approached the Baton Rouge Rehab Hospital looking for a sponsor, and she ended up with a host site for the state’s first pageant, she said.

The efforts led to Sunday’s event, which featured two contestants, five judges and a room full of flowers and pageant fans on the hospital’s second floor.

“It’s not a beauty pageant; it’s about advocacy,” Gray said, describing how advocates must help break down architectural barriers in a state with many old buildings.

Competing for the crown with Hoffpauir was Tarj Hamilton, 37, a mother of four and a Baton Rouge real estate agent who became a paraplegic about seven years ago when she was shot during a robbery outside her home.

She and her husband, Durell Hamilton, had just arrived home from a concert when two men approached them with firearms, Tarj Hamilton said.

A confrontation led to gunfire, and both Tarj Hamilton and her husband were shot — he in the stomach and she in the back, she said. He fully recovered, but Tarj Hamilton’s injuries left her paralyzed from the waist down.

During her pageant speech Sunday, Hamilton spoke of the need to protect people with disabilities from crime, suggesting self-defense during rehabilitation as one possible avenue.

“The disabled are the most vulnerable people,” she said during her speech.

Both women spoke following private interviews with the pageant’s five judges. In Hoffpauir’s speech, she recommended art as a healing tool, using her own story to support her platform. After Hoffpauir’s injury, a man recommended painting to help ease her mind, she said.

“Well, I can’t even sign my name,” she recalled telling him. “I’m a quadriplegic.”

But then Hoffpauir saw a video of a legless, armless man who painted by holding a brush in his teeth. It convinced her to try painting, and now she’s a semester away from an associate degree in fine arts at LSU-Eunice, she said.

“Your disability shouldn’t hold you back from anything, especially education,” Hoffpauir said.

After the judges posed a question to each candidate, they deliberated for 15 minutes before announcing Hamilton as the first runner-up, Hoffpauir the winner and 91-year-old Betty Toepfer as an honorary senior Ms. Wheelchair Louisiana because only women between the age of 21 and 60 can qualify for the pageant.

Toepfer, who has been wheelchair-bound since the 1960s, said people with disabilities can either laugh about it or cry about it.

“It’s much better to laugh,” Toepfer said.