By Daniel J. Vance
Juliette Rizzo of North Bethesda, Maryland, was excited and happy when she emailed last month. "I just wanted to share my incredible news with you!" she wrote.
Last November I interviewed her for this column. This July 31 she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair America and now she is traveling the U.S. to speak during her one-year "reign." She will raise awareness of the achievements and abilities of women with disabilities and of architectural and attitudinal barriers affecting the 54 million Americans with disabilities.
As for the Ms. Wheelchair America competition in Richmond, Virginia, she said over the telephone, "All I could see were the lights. There were hundreds of people in attendance. I was humbled just being selected in the top five. The news (of the competition) has reached all over the world; I've even seen it in Borneo, Korea and Slovakia. That's because disabilities issues are on the front burner for many across the world. [And now I have] a unique opportunity to carry these issues forward."
Her disability is threefold: juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which in most persons involves joint inflammation, stiffness, damage and/or alteration or change in growth; scleroderma, a disease that in her causes hardening of skin and blood vessels; and fibromyalgia, a syndrome characterized by generalized pain in muscles, ligaments and tendons.
At 36 she is Director of Communication and Media for the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, serves on the board of the Arthritis Foundation Metropolitan Washington Chapter, and was appointed commissioner of the Montgomery County (Md.) Commission on People with Disabilities. She has a Masters in journalism from the Univ. of North Texas.
"This was not a beauty pageant," she said. Contestants were judged on academic, vocational and personal accomplishments since the onset of disability; communication and advocacy skills; and self-perception and poise.
In a press release, her "boss" U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, "We have always known that Juliette is a star. She is an articulate and passionate advocate for people with disabilities, and I know she will represent the Department and the entire federal workforce well as she travels the nation in her role."
Ms. Wheelchair America is an all-volunteer organization founded in 1972. To compete, women must be 21-60 years old and use a wheelchair for daily mobility.
Juliette would like to speak in your city. Contact her through www.ms-wheelchair-md.com
For more, see www.danieljvance.com