In her elegant evening dress and perfectly styled hair and make-up, Maria Diaz looks like any beauty pageant contestant — except for the wheelchair she has been confined to since being shot by a stranger ten years ago.
Maria is one of 24 young women who gathered in Warsaw on Saturday to compete for the first-ever title of Miss Wheelchair World.
“It doesn’t matter who wins the crown. We are all winners,” said the 28-year-old from Chile, who is a professional wheelchair tennis player.
“It’s our first opportunity of its kind to show the world that we can do anything we want,” she added.
Belarussian psychology and social pedagogy student Aleksandra Chichikova won the crown at a gala evening in the Polish capital.
The contestants presented themselves in national costumes, cocktail and evening dresses.
They also performed elaborate dance routines, some by moving their wheelchairs on their own and others with the help of assistants.
They talked mostly about their personal experiences, including the challenges of life in a wheelchair.
Finland’s Kati van der Hoeven can only talk to her husband by moving her pupils, while Mirande Bakker from the Netherlands is the victim of a doctor’s mistake.
Polish kinesiotherapist Beata Jalocha has been confined to a wheelchair since 2013 when a suicide jumper landed on her.
“It’s the first initiative of its kind in the world,” jury president Katarzyna Wojtaszek-Ginalska told AFP.
The goal is to “change the image of women on wheelchairs so they would not be judged solely by” their disability, added the 36-year-old handicapped mother.
Wojtaszek-Ginalska is head of the Only One Foundation, which has organised the contest drawing on experience from Polish beauty pageants for the handicapped.
“It is not the looks that matter the most,” said Wojtaszek-Ginalska.
“Of course, good looks count but we have focused especially on the personalities of the girls, their everyday activities..,” she added.
Another goal was to show that a wheelchair is a luxury in many parts of the world.
“It’s a common saying of handicapped women that we didn’t ask to be handicapped, that we would happily get rid of our handicaps, that we want to be considered ordinary people after all,” she said.
“Of course we are on wheelchairs, but that is a fate that can hit anyone, anytime.”
– ‘Raise your right hand!’ –
To finance the pageant, the small foundation has collected money from private sponsors. But the biggest portion of aid came from the city of Warsaw, which provided the infrastructure, logistical support and helpers.
“The girls only paid for their trip here,” said Wojtaszek-Ginalska.
The contestants were chosen either in national rounds or, in countries with no such pageants, by non-governmental organisations contacted by the Polish foundation.
Each country could send a maximum of two contestants, who spent eight days in the Polish capital, busy with rehearsals, photo sessions, conferences and visits.
One rehearsal required them to dance to fast music, a task some found impossible to do.
At one moment, a professional choreographer showing them the movements they were to imitate, cried: “Raise your right hand!”
“I don’t have the right hand,” American contestant Jennifer Lynn Adams protested from her electric wheelchair, driven with the help of a joystick, to an applause from all hands at the rehearsal.
“I was born with partial limbs so I have to be adaptive to the music, to the choreography but that’s okay. I live my life adaptively,” said the Miss Wheelchair America 2014.
“That’s actually my message to the world: that we all have something that limits us but we can adapt beyond it and we can shine beyond our limitations.”