Michele Miller remembers the day her fourth-grade son came home from school crying. The reason for his tears: “The kids at school were saying, ‘Your mommy has four legs,’” she recalls.
Miller, who was born with spastic cerebral palsy and used Lofstrand crutches and later a wheelchair to get around, always saw herself as an ordinary wife and mother — even if she faced more challenges than most. But the lifelong Calhoun County woman who last month was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Alabama USA learned from an early age that she was not defined by those challenges.
“Growing up, the word ‘can’t’ was not a word I was taught to use,” she said. “I may have to do it differently, I may require different tools, but there’s nothing I can’t do.”
It’s advice she’s tried to pass on to her two sons, particularly her youngest, who graduates this week from White Plains High School. “I’m always telling him, ‘Try new things — it will look great on your resume.’”
Still, Miller never thought of herself as a role model for the physically and mentally challenged, or as a public champion for change. She certainly never imagined she’d one day add state pageant winner to her resume — twice — until two years ago when her motherly advice came back around.
Miller was at home with her family browsing through a magazine when she spotted a yearly events calendar with a listing for the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, a program she hadn’t known existed.
“My husband said, ‘Wow, you should do that.’ I said there is no way I’m doing that,” Miller recalls. “My sophomore in high school turned around, looked at me and said, ‘Why not mom? It will look great on your resume.’
“So I entered, never thinking I would win.”
But win she did. Miller was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Alabama America 2012 and went on to compete in the national competition in Providence, R.I., in what she calls one of the best weeks of her life.
“What I took away was more than a crown could ever give me,” she said — not least of which was the opportunity to finally speak out on behalf of the fourth grader who cried when his classmates made fun of his mom.
When Miller was asked to select her candidate platform, her thoughts immediately went back to that afternoon with her son six years before.
“I discovered as a mom of two kids that our educators unfortunately do not know how to communicate with the physically and mentally challenged,” said Miller. Which is why she chose as her platform to advocate for programs to teach educators just that — because “if they don’t, how can they teach our children?”
To that end, Miller’s appearances included speaking to physical and occupational therapy students at Auburn University in Montgomery and Belmont University in Nashville, and to outgoing Anniston High School seniors who, she says, may face difficulties in the workforce.
But there was still more she wanted to do.
Earlier this year, when a friend encouraged her to go out for Ms. Wheelchair USA, a similar program sponsored by the Dane Foundation, Miller’s initial reaction was again, no — “I thought there’s no way I would win again.” But again she relented and, although there is not yet a pageant for the USA circuit in Alabama, she was pleased to see the 10-page application process focused heavily on platform.
In fact, according to Lowery Lockard, president of the Dane Foundation and executive director of Ms. Wheelchair USA, a candidate’s platform accounts for 40 percent of the selection process, “the idea being to use this as a platform to get their message out there.”
And that’s exactly what Miller’s first thought was after learning she’d been named Ms. Wheelchair Alabama USA 2014.
“I didn’t realize before these pageants that I had a voice. I was a physically challenged mother of two school-aged boys and I wanted more for them and their schoolmates,” she said. “I didn’t realize all I had to do was open my mouth … Now I’d love to be the voice for those who haven’t yet found theirs.”
In July, Miller heads to Ohio for the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant and all the sightseeing, pageant prep, public appearances and lifelong friendships that come with it. “She’s in store for an amazing week,” said Lockard.
But what Miller is looking forward to more than anything is another year to keep her platform in the spotlight. Although, “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to dress up,” said Miller, whose husband, a retired corporal in the British army, picked out her first two pageant dresses. “I didn’t do much of that growing up.”
Now she’s found a way to do both.
Not long after being crowned Ms. Wheelchair Alabama America, Miller and her predecessor were sitting in a Red Robin following an appearance at a spina bifida bowl-a-thon.
“This beautiful blonde-hair girl in her pretty Southern voice said, ‘I like your pretty crown,’” said Miller recalling how the little girl questioned her: Where had she gotten it? When? Why was she wearing it now? “She was maybe 4 years old and she did not see anything but that pretty crown — not the chair, not the challenges in front of us.”
Talking to her husband later, Miller recounted the story adding, “If I’d known that’s all I had to do to get people to listen to me, I’d have been wearing a crown a long time ago.”