"I am just as human as you are."
Pearl Gannon wants to get that message across to every person she meets in the next year.
How to reach Pearl GannonThe 27-year-old Lombard native is open to speaking events and meeting with other disabled people or their families. She can be reached at email@example.com. She also is on social media at facebook.com/mswheelchairillinois2014. Gannon is raising money to compete in Ms. Wheelchair America, too. Donations can be made at mswheelchairillinois.org.
Since being crowned Ms. Wheelchair Illinois last month, the 27-year-old Lombard native is working to fulfill two missions: raise public awareness about disabilities and encourage people with disabilities to work toward positive mental health.
"My legs may not work the same. My arms may not work the same. Some people, their speech doesn't work the same. But we're all human," she said on a recent afternoon, with a crown on her head and a sash draped across her chest.
Gannon had no interest in the competition when she first heard about it.
Open to women ages 21 to 60 who use a wheelchair for 100 percent of their daily mobility, the competition is part of the bigger Ms. Wheelchair America contest, which began in the 1970s.
Gannon's friend Danielle Austin of Carol Stream won the Ms. Wheelchair Illinois contest last year. She introduced the idea to Gannon and encouraged her to apply, knowing she had a good chance at winning because only two other people were competing.
At the last minute, Gannon agreed to take part in the March 22 contest, where she did a one-on-one interview with a panel of judges, an onstage interview and an onstage platform speech. The judges also took her accomplishments, communication skills and self-perception into consideration.
When she was named the winner Gannon said she thought to herself, "What did I get myself into?" Now she's raising money to compete against women from more than 20 states in the national Ms. Wheelchair 2015 competition, which will take place in California.
And she says she is excited for the opportunities that are already coming her way.
"I've always wanted a way to go and speak to different people about what's in my heart, what I've been through, how to educate other people," she said. "You can't just go to a school and say, 'Hey, I want to speak to your students.' But having a crown and a sash, they're going to look at you differently.
"It's giving me a way to go out there and share my story and tell people that you don't have to live your life in misery," she added. "I'm in a wheelchair, but I'm not miserable. I'm finding ways to live my life and enjoy it."
Gannon started using a wheelchair about eight years ago when it became difficult to walk due to a neuromuscular disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, which affects nerves that lie outside the brain and spinal cord.
Signs of the disease first appeared when she was 8, after she fell and hurt her leg while playing outside with one of her sisters.
A few years later, her legs started giving out during runs in gym class, causing her to collapse to the ground. She was hindered in basketball tryouts in middle school due to leg pain, and by high school she couldn't walk to all her classes.
Now, during flare-ups, Gannon's hands and wrists are affected, making it difficult to do simple tasks such as picking up a cup or turning a key. Her ankles are completely locked, and within the last two years the symptoms spread to her shoulders. The disease has also affected her hearing, forcing her to wear hearing aids.
Gannon made every effort to stay out of a wheelchair as a teenager. She used crutches and leg braces, and when she enrolled at Elmhurst College in 2005 she bought a backpack with wheels. But her condition continued to worsen and she gave in to her doctor's advice to use a wheelchair.
At the time, Gannon was pursuing a nursing degree. She was crushed her second year when school officials told her she couldn't become a nurse if she used a wheelchair.
"The depression, yes, it's there, but it's only temporary," she said. "It's getting used to a new situation. Sometimes it's realizing that that situation may not change, but there's ways to get around things. You may have to cook differently, you may have to drive differently. There's always a new way.
"There's so many coping skills out there and it's just finding what works for you," she added. "People tend to isolate, and that's the last thing you want to do."
Gannon has found ways to cope through sports adapted for people with disabilities. She's tried just about any adaptive sport that has been introduced to her, including tennis, softball, track and field, kayaking, basketball and wakeboarding.
"Sports have been a huge part of my life and dealing with the depression that comes with having a disability," she said. "When you're in basketball, it's being part of a team. You feel needed and wanted. Your team depends on you, and that's something that takes you out of the isolation of the depression."
While Gannon admits she wasn't very good at some sports, she makes herself try everything at least three times before moving on.
That attitude played out well for her with wakeboarding -- a water sport that uses a combination of water skiing, snowboarding and surfing techniques -- as she recently received a grant that will allow her to train this summer in Colorado in preparation for a national competition.
When she tried the sport for the first time, however, it was not enjoyable. On a second day of practice, Gannon was determined to pull herself out of the water, but she didn't have the strength that day.
"I couldn't do it for the life of me," she said. "I was almost in tears, (I said) I want to give up, I'm done. And they were like no, this is only your second day. You told us three times. And it was on that third day that I finally got it."
In 2009, after taking some time off from school and working at her former elementary school, Park View in Lombard, Gannon packed up two suitcases and her wheelchair and moved to Florida, where she attended St. Petersburg College.
She realized then that nursing wasn't the right fit for her anyway and began pursuing a psychology degree and taking American Sign Language courses.
This month, she will begin advanced sign language classes at the Center for Deafness. She is also considering taking classes at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago starting in the fall.
In between her studies, Gannon hopes to spend much of the next year visiting schools and rehab facilities.
"Even if it's just a one-on-one, if I can impact one person at a time, that's fine with me," she said, adding that she's already met with people who contacted her after her Ms. Wheelchair win. "I've enjoyed those interactions with people."
She added that she hopes to impact children at a young age, as it is important for them to be exposed to people with disabilities early on.
"It seems that adults kind of pull their kids away (from me) and don't want their kids to ask questions," she said. "I wish the kids would ask the questions. They're curious."