Ms. Wheelchair Illinois, from Naperville, vies for broader advocacy role

Ms. Wheelchair Illinois, from Naperville, aims for broader role in national pageant

Shannon Webster sat at the Abilities Expo in Schaumburg, crown on her head, sash across her shoulder, greeting little girls in wheelchairs who wanted to see “the princess.”

The moment was her favorite so far as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois 2017, a title she won last October in a pageant about ideals and inspiration more than beauty.

“The organization as a whole focuses on advocacy and empowerment of individuals with disabilities, specifically people who use wheelchairs in the community,” Webster said about Ms. Wheelchair America, which has been recognizing wheelchair users since 1972. “It's not your typical beauty queen format.”

Webster, 25, of Naperville, has been homecoming queen and St. Patrick's Day queen, but she didn't originally see herself as a wheelchair queen. Born with cerebral palsy, Webster started using a wheelchair to get around when she was in junior high. Without it, her knee pain would increase and her mobility would suffer. But in her early teens, she struggled to accept her disability.

“Now being in a pageant where that's accepted and celebrated, I think really is a full-circle moment in my life,” she said.

Webster's platform as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois 2017 — employment for people with disabilities — also connects many elements of her personality and passions.

There's her career, which started with a goal of being “the next Oprah” and grew into a role in human resources where she recruits college students for internships at Exelon in Chicago.

There's her love of communicating and public speaking, which she sharpened with a 2014 degree in communications and broadcasting from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

And then there's her passion for helping people with disabilities gain the confidence to work in any career and achieve great things.

“My main goal in doing all of this isn't to get a crown,” Webster said. “I'm not in it for the recognition of myself personally, but just to serve as a mentor for other people with disabilities who may not think they can graduate from college and have a job in corporate America.”

As the young corporate recruiter prepares for a new pageant challenge — the Ms. Wheelchair America contest Aug. 14-19 in Erie, Pennsylvania — Webster says she's broadening her platform to focus not only on employment but also on finding the ability within each person's disability.

“We can find full-time employment. We can go to college. We can get married and have kids,” said Webster, who is engaged to be married next year. “You can have all of the things that everyone else dreams of. You can have that same life, it just might take a different way.”

Webster's way toward recognition as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois traces its roots to her freshman year in high school, when she switched from regular physical education to an Adaptive PE program at Naperville Central High School run by teacher Pat Adamatis.

The program pairs students with and without disabilities and uses teamwork and technology to ensure everyone can participate, whether the activity is rock wall climbing or playing floor hockey.

“It was a really unique experience to be a part of something that really celebrated the abilities within the disability,” Webster said. “That's when I really gained the confidence to use the abilities that I have and the experiences that I've gained as being a person with a disability.”

Adamatis described Webster as a positive and outgoing person who matured into a leader. She remembers helping Webster learn to use a Segway to get around school and watching her self-esteem grow.

“You could see it from the inside, it changed her,” Adamatis said. “She was already pretty confident in herself, but what happened was she was now eye level with everyone. How people treated her was completely different.”

Webster's parents, Jeff and Jeanne Webster, say they've helped their oldest of two children become the self-assured professional she is by not treating her differently.

“We treat her like anyone else,” her father said. “We don't put any limits on her, and as a result, neither does she.”

The biggest limits in Webster's life come from the physical environment. Her biggest employment challenge is getting to work.

She commutes roughly 90 minutes each way to Chicago three days a week and works from home the other two. She drives her car to the train station using hand controls instead of foot pedals, then catches a Metra to the city, hails a taxi to her high-rise office and wheels herself in.

She hopes her advocacy can help make it more acceptable for people with disabilities to ask for accommodations in doorways, desks or job tasks if they need to. While at her first job with ComEd, she talked with her bosses about handicapped parking spaces, placement of a footrest under her desk and permission to work remotely. All requests were received positively, she said.

Webster now is preparing a two-minute memorized speech she'll give during the finale of the national pageant as she competes against women from 28 other states on Aug. 18. She's ready with a new gown of deep purple, her favorite color, to take her shot at being named a queen again, once again among the nation of wheelchair users she calls “my people.”

“It's all about connecting with people,” she said. “Everyone has a story to share.”

Advocacy: National pageant finale in Pennsylvania is Aug. 18

  Shannon Webster of Naperville says she's enjoyed advocating this year for employment of people with disabilities as Ms. Wheelchair Illinois 2017. Daniel White/
  Shannon Webster of Naperville, with her family's dog, Teddy, is preparing to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant Aug. 14 to 19 in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she could earn a national role advocating for finding the ability within each person with a disability. Daniel White/
  Shannon Webster's Naperville family, including her father Jeff, younger sister Colleen and mother Jeanne, will travel with her this month to Erie, Pennsylvania, where she will compete to be named Ms. Wheelchair America. Daniel White/

How to help

As Shannon Webster of Naperville competes to become Ms. Wheelchair America, she's also in the running for the pageant's People's Choice Award, which is decided by online voting. Here's how to cast a ballot to support her advocacy for employment — and recognition of the abilities — of people with disabilities.

What: Ms. Wheelchair America People's Choice contest

When: Until Aug. 14

Where: How: Donate $1 for each vote; 40 percent of proceeds will go toward the state advocacy program of the winning contestant; 60 percent will go toward a fund for travel, room and board for personal care attendants for Ms. Wheelchair America contestants.

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