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They Meet the Challenge

July 29, 1999 


Her Optimism Speaks For Ms.Wheelchair N.J

By Kimberly Brown

When Dawn Teresa Parkot was crowned Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey, the 27-year-old Morristown woman was prepared to accept the honor – with a few pre-programmed words.

 

“I’m truly speechless,” said a computer voice amplifying from the machine that does the talking for Parkot. The crowd roared at the double entendre. Parkot suffers from Cerebral Palsy since birth, which effects her physical movements and her speech. Besides being in a wheelchair, she has a major speech disability, she has only one arm that she has some control of, and she is legally blind.



It was Parkot’s humor and her ability to “talk” to the judges, albeit non-verbally, that probably won her the crown last month against four other New Jersey women, said her mother, Kathryn Parkot, during a recent interview.



 

Now Dawn is heading to the national competition and representing the Garden State. Ms. Wheelchair America, which starts Wednesday in Tallmadge, Ohio, focuses attention on the accomplishments of the disabled contestants. The organization insists that the competition is not a beauty pageant – but they do wear fancy ball gowns and are requested to deliver a three minute speech to a large audience, which Dawn already pre-programmed into her computer device. Therefore she will be able to tap only one button on the screen to make it speak her three minute speech. They also must answer questions on stage and front of an audience. That is where Parkot could run into trouble.



 

Kathryn Parkot is worried that since her daughter needs a computer device to talk, and it can be tedious and slow to use, she might not get a fair shake at winning the national competition. The pageant, which is now in its 27th year, will not give Parkot the questions for the on stage Q & A in advance, as the New Jersey pageant did.

“This can pose a serious problem for Dawn,” said Kathryn Parkot, speaking for her daughter, whose communication device was not functioning properly.

“It’s not that she can’t answer for herself or that she can’t think on the spot, but it takes time to use an augmented communication device, unfortunately,” she said. It takes many minutes for Parkot to tap in a long sentence on her touch screen computer.

When it comes to one-on-one communication, however, Parkot often bypasses the speaking device in favor of a letter board, a low-tech-home-made device. The board has letters and some of the most common words, like “you” and “she” written in squares, to which Parkot can point and make sentences.

Since Parkot has limited use of her arms, she often has false start, something akin to a machine malfunction. Sometimes, when she tries to move her left arm down to her computer device or her letter board to tap a letter, it gets stuck in midair. She also can’t see what she types into her computer device because of her sight disability.

Communication has never been easy for Parkot. Little has. When she was born doctors told her parents, “Institutionalize her. She was a vegetable,” Kathryn Parkot said.

 

Now, Parkot is working towards a master’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

  

She loves country & western and swing dancing in her wheelchair. Parkot also is an accomplished equestrian and she volunteers for the Juvenile Diabetes Association.

 

“Ms. Wheelchair America is a program that advocates for women with disabilities,” said Lowery Lockard, vice president of Ms. Wheelchair America and a former Miss America contestant. “A contestant isn’t going to be penalized because of her disability,” she said, adding Parkot will have as much time as she needs to answer questions. Every year, Ms. Wheelchair is invited to the White House and speaks all over the country.



 

As a newspaper reporter, I don’t see Parkot would have a problem performing these duties. It may take her awhile to answer a question, if she has no answer to the question programmed into her computer device already. But she won’t have difficulty giving a speech that she programs beforehand.

Tom O’Bryant, president of Ms. Wheelchair America said that a few years ago, a contestant from Maryland used a communication device in the national competition. He added there have been deaf contestants in the past who requested sign language interpreters. But he also noted that unlike Parkot, the former Ms. Wheelchair Maryland had full control of both of her hands.



 

“I think we’re looking for individuals that are going to be judged on their communication skills, involvements, since onset of disability, and yes, they’re going to be judged on their ability to communicate,” said O’Bryant, who nevertheless maintained Parkot can win.

O’Bryant said the Ms. Wheelchair America board will meet before the start of the pageant to discuss Parkot’s concerns.

Jean Dodds, executive editor of New Mobility Magazine, a special magazine for the disabled community, says the 27-year-old Ms. Wheelchair competition is a good forum to draw visibility to the disabled community.



 

“(It) probably helps people see wheelchair users as more ‘normal’ because they can sort of relate this to an able-bodied experience, the regular pageants that have been going on forever,” said Dodds, who added that using the speaking device is pushing the envelope of visibility for the disabled.

“I love to get all dressed up,” Parkot managed to tap with a huge smile.

“Dawn took the attitude very young in life,” added Kathryn Parkot. “People are going to look at her, so she might as well be damned good to look at.”

“Dawn hopes the content will give her some exposure because she’s going to be job hunting in May,” Kathryn Parkot said, who added that her daughter has sent, out resumes in the past and gotten good responses. But once prospective employers find out the extent of her disabilities, they disappear.

“The idea that the disabled are truly enabled is not true yet,” said Kathryn Parkot.

At that, Parkot waved her arm to indicate that she wanted her letter board.

“The disabled can do anything. All that we are asking for is a chance,” she spelled.