Terri Lynn Seitz made it to the finals of the Miss Wheelchair America contest in part by dealing well with hostility.
Beauty, brains and composure aside, the judges in the 11th annual contest -- most of whom are confined to wheelchairs themselves -- deliberately threw out some rough verbal abuse about handicaps during the contest, which was held three weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio.
They wanted to see how the women could "communicate our ideas when on the line," said Seitz, 29 who teaches second grde in Essex, Md. The contestants were judged on speaking skills and accomplishment after the onset of disability, as well as on personality and appearance. The judges were also looking for dignity in the face of hostility, a quality they said would reflect well on all handicapped persons.
"It's sad, but there's always someone who is hostile somewhere . . . " Seitz observed. "You have to know what to say and say it confidently."
Seitz lost out to Barbara Crozier of Goodwater Ala., but her 13 fellow competitors picked her to be Miss Congeniality. "I felt like I came away a winner," she said.
Though loosely based on the Miss America Pageant, the wheelchair competition, begun in 1971, is not a beauty contest.
The woman selected must be able to communicate the needs of the disabled community to the public, the business community and people in government -- "now more than ever before," Seitz noted. Last year's Miss Wheelchair America, Marian Schooling of Savage, Md., has acted as spokeswoman for Good Will and other organizations representing the disabled.
Seitz, who was injured in a motorcycle crash in 1977, said she entered the Miss Wheelchair Maryland contest to help further her interest in educating people about handicaps.
Since the accident, which left her paralyzed from the waist down, she has earned a master's degree in general education from Johns Hopking University and is on call for peer counseling for the newly injured. The Towson resident also works for a group called Families United for Trauma Rehabilitation, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, and she is on the Maryland governor's and Baltimore mayor's committees for the disabled.
She said she's also learned to put her disability to positive use in the classroom, by being totally open to questions from her students. Children who are brought up with an awareness and no fear of people with handicaps "will be a lot more at ease and will realize that a disabled person can be a productive person in society," she cntends.
Seitz takes time on the first day of school "to tell the children about myself and why I'm in a wheelchair . . . I don't hold back. Any of them can tell you how I dress, shower, drive a car. We learn about the human being medically, about muscles and the spine. I feel that my openness will be returned by them.
"My students love pushing me around in my chair. They're so proud when it's their turn. I've had to make it one ot the jobs -- just like taking things to the office.
"If someone isn't doing too well or isn't turning in his work, I tell them if they improve they can choose any job they want; inevitably they choose to be the chair pusher."
"I've had parents come up to me and say how much of an impact I've had on their families, even though I've never taught their children. I used to just say thank you and finally I asked, "What do you mean?' They answered, 'Just by being here. My children are motivated by seeing you drive, work, by being happy and friendly to them.'"
And that's what she'll always be doing, "whether Miss Wheelchair or not," Seitz said. "I'm looking forward to being out in public this year and reaching more people."