Pageant queen wants others to look beyond the wheels

Former Oak Lawn resident crowned Miss Wheelchair Illinois

(From April 4, 2012)

A former area woman who has refused to let partial paralysis keep her from realizing her dreams can add one more accomplishment to her list: pageant queen.

Kim Brown, who grew up in Oak Lawn and graduated from Mother McAuley High School, was crowned Miss Wheelchair Illinois at the 2nd annual pageant held last month. Brown will represent the Prairie State in the Miss Wheelchair America competition to be held in August in Rhode Island, where 30 women will compete for the national title.

Brown, 38, of Chicago's Mount Greenwood community, competed against three other finalists at an all-day event at the Windgate by Wyndham Hotel in Tinley Park. The competition included an interview and question-and-answer session. In addition to her state crown, Brown was chosen "Miss Congeniality" by her fellow contestants.

Brown was born with spina bifida, a disease that affects the spinal and in the worst cases can cause paralysis, below the area where the spinal cord is wedged between vertebrae.

"It was an honor to win the contest," Brown said. "I felt like it was another accomplishment in my life, another success. To come from when I was born, with the doctors telling my parents there wasn't anything they could do for me, to where I am today. I will get to be the voice for physically challenged people in the state of Illinois, so they and their families have a brighter future."

Brown is a wheelchair athlete who plays tennis, and a kindergarten teacher at Schmid Elementary in Chicago. She earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from St. Xavier University and holds two master's degrees, one in reading education from Saint Xavier University and the other in school administration from Concordia University.

Brown said she first heard about the Miss Wheelchair contest through her physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She competed on the platform of architectural and attitudinal barriers - helping people see that those who are in wheelchairs can lead the same lives as everyone else.

"When I was growing up, I did the same things as other kids, I just did them in a different way," she said. "I was raised as if nothing was wrong with me.

"If my sister was rollerblading, she would put roller blades on me and pull me around our basement. If she went skateboarding, I skateboarded on my stomach. When kids had a bike, I had a hand bike. For tennis, the rules are two bounces instead of one. The court is the same size, it's the same everything."

Brown explained she has faced challenges in her life - from a teacher who made a point to mention that a college course had to be moved from one building to another to accommodate her, to the school not having handicapped-accessible bathrooms.

"I want people to look beyond the wheels," Brown said. "People need to see that people in wheelchairs have gifts and talents to offer, just like everyone else."

Miss Wheelchair Illinois is a one-year commitment, during which Brown will attend events to advocate for persons with disabilities. Her first event was an Easter egg hunt for blind and disabled children held last Saturday at the Children's Museum in Oak Lawn.

Brown's dream is to found a nonprofit organization called Beyond the Wheels that would focus on resources and a school.

"I want to have education classes for kids, support groups for children and families, and my dream goal would be to build a school for any student with challenges - physical, emotional, or learning," she said. "I would love for their disability not to be the focus, for them to have a place, a special place for wheels. I want there to be no barriers."