Lesamarie Hacker speaks in a whisper. After two strokes, a car accident and surgeries on her esophagus, anything louder is difficult.
But with a tiara on her head and a sash wrapped around her chest, she doesn’t need to speak much louder. As the 2017 Ms. Wheelchair Indiana and state coordinator of the state program, Hacker intends to let her voice be heard through her new platform.
“I’m very blessed and glad to be a spokesperson for those who are in need,” she said.
Hacker, a lifelong Bloomington resident, spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Bloomington on Thursday about her experiences as a person living in a wheelchair and her goals for her platform of Ms. Wheelchair Indiana.
Hacker suffered a stroke in February 2013. Just as she began recovering, another stroke hit in March. Her list of symptoms was long: speech aphasia and dysphasia, difficulty swallowing, essential tremors and thoracic aortic aneurysm. She spent most of 2013 in and out of rehab centers recovering from her stroke.
Hacker divides her struggles into two categories: traumas and trials. Things she’s gone through, like losing a child, surviving breast cancer, have been traumas. But being in a wheelchair? That’s a trial to her. She’s working to turn these traumas and trials into triumphs, she said.
In August, she’ll go to Erie, Pennsylvania, to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America contest. She’ll compete with 35 other women during a week-long pageant, in which they present their forums to each other and the judges through poster presentations and speeches about what they’ve accomplished through their title. Hacker will compete as an independent title holder, selected by the president of Ms. Wheelchair America, Shelley Loose.
Hacker stresses that the pageant isn’t a beauty pageant. The five judges who select the next Ms. Wheelchair America are looking for an advocate.
“We’re naming who is going to be the spokesperson for those who are disabled, who don’t a voice themselves. Many don’t. I’m actually just slowly gaining mine back,” she said.
Ms. Wheelchair was founded in 1972 in Columbus, Ohio, by Phillip Woods. When he overheard someone remark on the beauty of a friend’s daughter, followed by, “It’s too bad you’re in a chair,” he created the non-profit organization to bring attention to the accomplishments and needs of women who use wheelchairs for 100 percent of their mobility.
The competition requires that contestants select a forum to advocate for in their home state. Hacker’s forum is two-fold. She’s working to increase handicap accessibility to businesses in Bloomington. Buildings like the license branch and the post office, services that almost everyone uses, are not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, Hacker says.
“A lot of people don’t really focus on the entryways if they can walk through,” she said. “But if it can be very hard for people in the standard chair or motorized chairs.”
Her approach is polite and casual. She talks to the owners of buildings and has found that most people are willing to hear her pitch. The Ms. Wheelchair title helps, she says.
And although Ms. Wheelchair doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-time position, Hacker finds herself putting in 100 percent. Everywhere she goes, she finds herself on Ms. Wheelchair duty, constantly observing to see where improvements for handicap accessibility can be made.
“When I go somewhere, I always look. I write it down, and then I call,” she said.
She’s also addressing the safety of Bloomington intersections, like the one at Leonard Springs Road and Tapp Road, where she was in an accident last year as she crossed in the crosswalk area in her wheelchair.
“I didn’t let it go,” she said. She’s fought for a new sidewalk there, and has addressed eight other intersections in Bloomington. But there’s plenty still to be done.
“I’m just trying to take it one step at a time with each one,” she said.