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Empowering others and creating change

News-Sun - 2/13/2018

SEBRING — In 1972, an Ohio physician created a national forum to highlight the achievements of women with disabilities. Known as the Ms. Wheelchair America program, its focus is far from glitter and glamour.

Rather, it strives to empower a unique group of women to leadership to increase awareness in the able-bodied community on the potential of women who are articulate, accomplished and also disabled.

Sebring resident Sara Canali seems the perfect candidate for such a competition and she has participated in four of the six years the Ms. Wheelchair Florida competition has been held during the Women’s Empowerment and Leadership conference. Canali received second place in 2014, but has her sights set on winning so she can move up to the Ms. Wheelchair America in 2019.

“I’ll have to reschedule a planned surgery, but it would be worth it,” she added.

The winner is expected to make public appearances throughout the state, advocating equality and inclusion for those with disabilities. “I’d be advocating for people with disabilities and hope to be able to expand my platform,” she explained. “I want people to look at a person as a whole person, not just at their disability. This issue has been a struggle for me my entire life.”

A college student, local advocate and an active young adult, Canali is assisted by her grandparents in most of her daily activities. The competition requires a great deal of preparation as she must present a two-minute speech as well as sit through several rounds of judging. “It is quite intensive,” said her grandmother, adding how a processing disorder makes it very challenging.

Each round of questions however, offers an opportunity to earn points, while workshops throughout the day are not focused on dancing routines or swimwear, but rather on fair housing for the disabled and home modification education to help those with disabilities live as independently as possible.

Canali added there is even a self-defense class for these young women, with tips on how to utilize their wheelchair to protect themselves.

Education aside, she really enjoys meeting the other young women and creating bonds with girls just like herself. “One year we even had a pajama party as a social event so we could interact and get to know each other.”

Canali remains in contact with several of her fellow contestants via Facebook and delights to know she’s not alone in her struggles or experiences.

On Saturday evening, the girls are offered support with hair and makeup, but Canali prefers to manage her own needs. “A lot of the girls really like it though because they have not ever had a chance to do this.” Pageant dresses are allowed, but not required. She has yet to get her dress, though she admitted to preferring purple once she has time to think about that.

Her true focus is on her speech. “My theme is ‘Focus on Abilities, not Disabilities’ and I want to help people of all abilities have their dreams come true and not allow their challenges — whatever they may be — to stop them from reaching their goals.” Canali also is pretty certain she will be the first one on stage.

“They schedule is alphabetically and my last name puts me pretty much on top,” she sighed. She did brighten however in hopes the local firefighters would return to escort each contestant to the stage. “Fox 13 News was there one year too and I also got to meet advocate Chelsie Hills in 2014.” Hills is a young woman who is a well-known speaker, dancer and author as well as advocate for those with disabilities.

Once she completes her speech, Canali knows the judges will ask one further question. “There is no way to know what it might be,” she added. “You have to be ready to respond.” As a disabled American, Canali wants to put the focus on a person’s abilities, not on what they cannot do.

She is also quick to encourage others — disabled or not — to reach for their dreams and not let anything hinder them. She has overcome a remarkable set of hurdles and she certainly is not going to allow something as small as an entry fee to stop her on her journey forward.

Want to “Be the change … Be empowered” and offer Canali a chance at becoming Florida’s “role model” for other young women with disabilities?

The Ms. Wheelchair Florida competition entry fee is $450 and covers all expenses for the contestant and their companion. If 30 women in our community donated $10 by Friday, Feb. 16, Canali will reach her fundraising goal and be on her way to this year’s competition.

For more information on the Ms. Wheelchair Florida, visit www.mswheelchairfl.org. To send a donation, send to Aktion Club of Highlands County, Attn: Cindy Marshall, 4352 Independence St., Avon Park, FL 33825, and note Sara Canali in the memo line.


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