Ms. Wheelchair Kansas reflects on her reign

Lorraine Cannistra, Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, had a whirlwind year since winning the title last spring. Since then, she has met Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and represented the state in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.

The past year was full of unexpected events for Lorraine Cannistra.

First, the Lawrence resident was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Kansas in March. Then she attended the national pageant in July. And, the biggest surprise of all, although she didn’t win Ms. Wheelchair America, she came away with something just as amazing: an award created specifically for her, which had never been done for any other contestant in the pageant’s 35-year history.

Cannistra’s whirlwind year began when a friend, the previous Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, encouraged her to enter the state pageant, an idea that had never crossed Cannistra’s mind.

“When I first got the application, I just started laughing,” said Cannistra, 39. “I’m not a pageant kind of person. Are you kidding me?”

But she gave it a try. She said she liked the pageant’s focus on empowering people with disabilities and she figured that at the least, she’d gain some valuable experience.

“Because I want to be a public speaker, because I want to write, I thought the whole process of this pageant thing would be really good practice,” she said. “It would help me answer questions quickly, force me to think very quickly and speak about the things that I was passionate about.”

One of those issues is advocacy for people with disabilities. Cannistra, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, has long championed the rights and abilities of people with disabilities. Even before becoming Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, she had given seminars and spoken with students. Cannistra, who has a master’s degree in social rehabilitation from Emporia State University, sees public speaking as one of the best tools to spread her message, which is “use your power.”

“The best way to advocate for anything is through education,” Cannistra said. “And so the more people that I can educate about these kind of things, and why these kinds of things are important … then I think I’m doing some good and making a difference. It’s really important to me that everybody, not just people with disabilities, feel empowered.”

Being Ms. Wheelchair Kansas has given Cannistra a new platform to spread her message, but she hopes someday to reach a national audience on another issue that’s important to her.

“If there’s one thing I want to do in my life, it’s to get on ‘Oprah’ and explain where the word ‘handicapped’ came from and why it’s offensive,” Cannistra said.

Cannistra said the word comes from the phrase “cap in hand,” which implies that the only thing that people with disabilities can do is beg. She said she cringes whenever she hears that word.

In her reign, Cannistra has continued to speak to groups and students. She also met Gov. Kathleen Sebelius recently.

But perhaps the most significant experience during her reign was the special award she won at the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.

When all the award winners and finalists were announced at the crowning ceremony, she wasn’t disappointed she hadn’t won anything.

“When I went to the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, I went very definitely to meet people and network and be a part of the group. I knew I didn’t want to be Ms. Wheelchair America. I don’t think I could travel that much,” said Cannistra, who cannot drive.

But then, the judges said they had one more honor – the Bouquet Award. The judges created it for Cannistra because they said she had “the uncanny ability to leave people feeling more joy than they did before she came in the room,” Cannistra said.

“That’s another thing that just blew me away,” she said. “I had no idea it was coming … and it was just one of the neatest things ever and I thought, ‘I did what I came here to do.'”

Although Cannistra never intended to win Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, she said it is an experience that will change her forever.

“When I first got my crown, I thought, ‘I’m not sure I can do this, I’m not sure I’m the right person for this,'” Cannistra said. “But it has really changed from that, to as Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, I can represent other people with disabilities. I can write letters, I can talk to senators or representatives … and represent people with disabilities who would not voice things for themselves, and that’s a responsibility that I am glad to take on.”