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Ms. Wheelchair America From Alabama Not Just Another Beauty Queen

August 23, 1987

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (AP) _ Before her ex-husband shot her in front of their two daughters in 1983, leaving her a paraplegic, Peggy Simpson said she never would have entered a beauty pageant.

But Saturday night, the 35-year-old woman from Warrior, Ala., was selected Ms. Wheelchair America from a field of 17 contestants judged on their accomplishments, personality, appearance and ability to rise above their disabilities.

″It’s not a beauty contest but we haven’t come up with another word yet,″ Ms. Simpson said after being crowned by her predecessor, Sandra Honbaier of Mount Holly, N.C., in front of more than 500 spectators.

″I was proud to be not part of a fluff show. All of the women were real inspirations,″ Ms. Simpson said later.

First runner-up was Ms. Minnesota, Jennifer Peterson of Plymouth; followed by Ms. Utah, Diane Ellingson of Salt Lake City; Ms. Maryland, Laura Jeanne Gulyas of Ocean City, and Ms. Arizona, Susan Castle of Phoenix.

Ms. Simpson, who will be a spokeswoman for the disabled and promoter of independent living programs in appearances around the country, said the pageant gave her a new sense of self.

″There’s nothing feminine about being in a wheelchair,″ she said in an interview after she was crowned. ″After I was hurt, I always wore jeans.″

When she was selected Ms. Wheelchair Alabama, Ms. Simpson said she felt she had to wear dresses for her public appearances and found to her surprise that she could be comfortable in them again.

″I think that’s part of the thing about the pageant. Dressing up has given these woman a chance to feel good about themselves,″ she said.

The contestants answered impromptu questions posed by a local celebrity emcee before judges narrowed the field to five semifinalists.

But there was no talent competition, no evening gown competition and the questions dealt with public policy issues and image concerns involving the disabled.

When asked to identify the biggest misconception faced by the disabled, Ms. Simpson replied that it was the belief held by some able-bodied people that the handicapped are incapable of controlling their lives.

″Society is really the one that suffers the disability,″ she said.

Her ordeal opened her eyes to the daily obstacles society imposes on the disabled, she said.

She was shot on April 1, 1983, by her now ex-husband, Joseph Simpson, outside her parents’ home in Hyattsville, Md., where she had fled to escape an ″abusive situation″ with him.

She was shot three times in the back, once in the hand and once in the arm and spent 10 months in rehabilitation.

A year after the shooting, a jury found her ex-husband innocent by reason of insanity and he went free, she said.

Since the shooting, Ms. Simpson has been involved in a victims’ rights group, served on the Alabama attorney general’s task force on disabilities, spoken on behalf of legislation and worked at a crisis center, counseling women whose partners have abused them.

Organized in the early 1970s by a group of Ohio physicians concerned for the disabled, the pageant is now sponsored by People Too-Central Minnesota Center for Independent Living in St. Cloud, said Kathy Wingen, vice president of the pageant’s board of directors.

″One of the questions we get is ‘Why a Ms. Wheelchair Pageant?’ You do all you can to promote awareness of people with disabilities,″ Ms. Wingen said. ″For the participants, it gives them a chance to be in the limelight. Often times, people with disabilities are given little opportunity to do that.″

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