Brandee Ponder has a lot in common with many other young women. She likes to go clothes shopping, watch movies (mostly comedies and romances), help with church activities and attend country-music concerts. But in some ways she stands apart: Perhaps most notably, the 26-year-old Weaverville native is the reigning Miss Wheelchair North Carolina.
Ponder, who was born with spina bifida, earned the honor last March and represented our state at last year’s Miss Wheelchair America Pageant, held in July. She didn’t win the national title, but she did score a pair of honors: the People’s Choice Award (which goes to the contestant who raises the most dollars, aka “votes,” in an online fundraising drive for Miss Wheelchair America) and the Internet Hit Ward (for the contestant whose Web site generates the most reader traffic).
Founded in 1972, the nonprofit is part contest, part advocate for disability rights. But despite her personal situation and her work in this arena, Ponder doesn’t see herself as a die-hard activist. “I’ve never been the type who says, ‘Just because I’m in a wheelchair, you have to do this for me,’” she emphasizes. “I’ve never said, ‘You owe me, just because.’ I hate to say it, but there are some people like that.”
Press Ponder on this point, and she can cite numerous anecdotes—but that’s a topic for another day. In a recent interview at Asheville Ford, where Ponder works as a receptionist, Xpress asked her about the pageant and what her involvement with it has meant to her.
Mountain Xpress: So you want to stage the Miss Wheelchair North Carolina contest, which is normally held in Raleigh, in Asheville in 2009?
Brandee Ponder: Yes. I’m in the process of looking for a place to hold it right now, but I’m hoping to have it in April in Asheville, and I’m still looking for contestants and sponsors.
What are the criteria for the contestants?
You have to be between the ages of 21 and 60, be a North Carolina resident for at least six months, and be 100 percent wheelchair-bound.
What happens at the national level, once you win your state title?
You go to the nationals and get the position as state coordinator as well. [The national Miss Wheelchair America Pageant] was absolutely unbelievable: It was unreal. There were 26 women; 26 states were represented. It was a weeklong event in Rockville, Md. They had different activities throughout the week, like comedy night and ‘50s night. I had to make a tri-fold presentation board of different places I had spoke as Miss Wheelchair North Carolina. I also had to include a scrapbook of things that I did; that was fun. And I had to present a platform speech.
What did you talk about?
My topic was streamlining the process for individuals with disabilities who want to become independent drivers.
Have you been though that?
It was an over-three-year process. I now have a 2007 Dodge Grand Caravan that’s been equipped for me. I’m not driving it on my own yet—I’m still kind of fiddling with it, but I had to have special driver’s ed training. When I was in high school, I took driver’s ed, and they didn’t have an adapted vehicle in my school, so … I couldn’t do the driving, I could just do the book work. That’s what I’d like to see, for teenagers who are wheelchair-mobile, just for things to be available to them in high school.
OK, so aside from the serious stuff, what did you do at the national pageant?
On comedy night, I dressed up as Lucille Ball. I love Lucille Ball. For comedy night we had to tell a joke: I did [Ball’s famous] Vitameatavegamin skit.
How’d it go over?
It went good! I don’t think I did it as good as she did, but it was good.
What was your favorite part of the pageant?
The opportunity to meet so many different people. Just to get together with other women and seeing where they’ve come from and learning from how they’ve lived with their disability and dealt with things.
Did the competition ever get ugly?
Oh no; it was wonderful. You know, with most pageants, it’s kind of all about the looks. With this, it’s not: It’s more about accomplishments and goals since the onset of the disability. Everybody got along.
You say you’re not the type to complain a lot about accessibility issues, but have you ever encountered discrimination because you’re in a wheelchair?
Not in any way that’s ever hit me in the face, no. But my whole thing is, just because you are in a wheelchair, that doesn’t mean you can’t live life to the fullest. There are a lot of individuals with disabilities who kind of let life pass them by. I let people know: “There is life out there, and it is for you to enjoy. Take opportunities whenever they come to you.”
To compete in the North Carolina pageant or support it through sponsorships or venue space, call Ponder, this year’s Miss Wheelchair North Carolina coordinator, at (828) 230-1129 (e-mail: email@example.com). For more information, visit www.mswheelchairamerica.org.