Danielle Austin didn't expect to even enter this year's Ms. Wheelchair Illinois America pageant, let alone win.
"It just didn't seem like me," the Carol Stream woman said. "I'm not a girlie girl. I'm not into the froufrou. I played wheelchair basketball."
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If you goWhat: Fundraiser for Danielle Austin's travel expenses for Ms. Wheelchair Illinois
When: 2 to 7 p.m. May 19
Where: Flip Flops Tiki Bar & Grill, 1022 Fountain View Drive, Carol Stream
Cost: Free admission
But when Austin happened to meet the pageant's state coordinator at an expo last year, she was encouraged to enter with the idea it would be more about meeting people and networking than about competition. She was still joking about her participation on the way to the event held in March in Orland Park.
"I didn't take it seriously until I walked in and answered the judges' questions," Austin said. "I didn't think I was going to win. I did it just for the experience."
One of only three women in the state pageant this year, Austin was named the top finisher.
"I think Danielle's enthusiasm, approachability, motivation and tenacity to help others were qualities that our state judges were looking for to represent Illinois," said state coordinator Pamela LaPorte.
Austin will travel to Houston in July to compete in the televised national Ms. Wheelchair America pageant against 30 other state titleholders between the ages of 21 and 60. Ms. Wheelchair America 2014 will be chosen on the basis of her achievements, communication and presentation skills, and willingness to advocate on the behalf of the roughly 54 million Americans with disabilities.
Austin is game to win or work with whoever does. Her platform is disability awareness.
"I've always wanted to be an advocate," she said. "It's (the pageant) opening my eyes to things I didn't even think about."
To help her toward her goal, Austin is holding a fundraiser from 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at Flip Flops Tiki Bar & Grill, 1022 Fountain View Drive, Carol Stream. The event will include a silent auction, raffles for gift baskets, and a 50-50 raffle.
Austin said the fundraiser is to help pay her way to the national pageant and meet her yearlong travel expenses. As Ms. Wheelchair Illinois, she is expected to do one event a month and to communicate with the general public, the business community and legislature.
Her engagements so far have included meetings at the Chicago mayor's office and with area Girl Scout troops. She's working on arranging a meeting with U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who herself is a war veteran with disabilities.
Austin's message is one of acceptance and tolerance, and educating others about what it is like to live with a disability. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 1, she attended school in Carol Stream while she was growing up. As a child, she was less wheelchair dependent and she remembers having lots of friends in fourth grade.
But as she entered adolescence, her wheelchair became a social barrier, she said. Friends often didn't ask her to go with them to the mall or to a party because the wheelchair wasn't cool or they didn't want to deal with it.
A sports lover, Austin got involved in wheelchair basketball and met people with different disabilities.
"These people welcomed me with open arms and I loved it," she said. "But I still missed the peers I grew up with."
After high school, Austin attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she earned bachelor's degrees in rehabilitation services and university studies, with a minor in speech communication. She joined a sorority, but some of the social barriers she encountered in high school were still there.
Some students didn't ask her to go places with them because they didn't know how she would get there or if there would be accessibility problems. Others threw her wheelchair in the back of the car and insisted she come along even if they had to carry her up a flight of steps.
"I met people who were accepting and would go the extra mile," she said.
Some people still seem surprised by what she is able to do, Austin said.
"I feel people just assume that I'm in a wheelchair and I'm not going to amount to anything," she said.
That's one of the attitudes Austin hopes her advocacy will help change.
"We're not going to go away," she said. "You need to just learn to accept us for who we are and that we can be productive members of society. You have to accept us for what we can do and not what we can't do."
Finding a voice
Austin credits her parents with encouraging her to pursue her goals and requiring her to do chores at home just like her older brother.
"My parents always treated me like I was a normal individual," she said. "They never said I couldn't do anything."
"She's always been very determined," said her mother, Nancy Austin. "We're just proud of her and anything she's accomplished."
Now a substitute teacher in Carol Stream Elementary District 93 and Glenbard North High School, Austin drives herself to work in her newly acquired adapted vehicle. Her very presence helps raise awareness.
"When I sub, I have my chair with me," she said. "The kids are really accepting."
Ultimately, Austin said she wants to work in rehabilitation services, but she needs to earn a master's degree first. Meanwhile, she's making good use of her college background in speech communication.
"I love to learn new things. I love public speaking. I love getting my message out," she said.
Austin said she's never felt sorry for herself, but admits she used to wonder why she had to be different from her peers.
"I questioned why God chose me to be disabled," she said. "As I've gotten older, I've realized it's given me more of a voice than I ever thought it possibly could."
Austin may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.