Avon's Shannon Mazurick has been named 2017 Ms. Wheelchair Connecticut. Here she uses Text2Speech software on her laptop to communicate in the Avon Public Library Jan. 5. (Brad Horrigan)
As with other pageant competitions, the title of Ms. Wheelchair Connecticut comes with a sash. But it also comes with responsibility.
The event uses a twist on the idea of a traditional beauty pageant to give women who rely on a wheelchair more visibility. And that is what the newly crowned Ms. Wheelchair Connecticut, Shannon Mazurick of Avon, liked when she heard about the pageant.
Mazurick, 30, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. It's difficult for Mazurick to speak so she uses a computer program to put words she types on a keyboard into speech.
"Advocacy has always been a huge part of my life," Mazurick, wearing a red dress with the sash draped across her chest, said in a recent interview. "I feel it is so important. And Ms. Wheelchair, the organization or the pageant, deals with advocacy."
Connecticut has not had a title-holder since 2006, when Denise Woodilla won the crown. Mazurick found out about the pageant late last year when she attended a presentation by its national title holder at Chapter 126 Sports & Fitness in Bristol, an adaptive gym for disabled athletes where Mazurick works out.
Speaking that day was the 2016 Ms. Wheelchair America Alette Coble-Temple of California, who was asked by national pageant organizers to visit Connecticut in the hope that her words would inspire someone to restart the program in this state.
Mazurick said she thought she was perfect for the title — she has lived her entire life with cerebral palsy while graduating from high school and earning bachelor's and master's degrees. She also wrote a series of children's books.
Stephanie Deible, Ms. Wheelchair America's national director, said Mazurick will be expected to find opportunities to speak out on the needs of people with disabilities. She also has been asked to organize a Ms. Wheelchair pageant for Connecticut later this year, the first one in the state in a decade.
Deible said to be eligible for the competition, contestants must rely on a wheelchair in their daily life.
"We look for someone with experience advocating for people with disabilties, who is a good communicator and can spread awareness about people with disabilities," Deible said. "Looks and appearance are not judged."
Mazurick has spoken at schools, the state legislature and other groups about the needs of people with disabilities. Mazurick said she saw another opportunity to do this with the pageant. She applied to the national organization to represent the state and in December was named Ms. Wheelchair Connecticut.
"I am passionate about advocating for the disabled community not only because I was born with a physical disability but because my father struggled with multiple sclerosis," she said.
"The state programs fluctuate from year to year because we are an all-volunteer organization and we are actively recruiting in states that don't have a program," Deible said. She said usually 25 to 30 states crown a winner each year.
In addition to laying the groundwork for a state pageant, Mazurick said she is raising money to attend the national Ms. Wheelchair America contest, which will be in August in Erie, Pa.