published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee still advocating for disabled access to public transportation

Jean-Marie Lawrence, Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee for 2012, holds a master's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is an intern at UTC's Office of Safety and Risk Management.
Jean-Marie Lawrence, Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee for 2012, holds a master's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is an intern at UTC's Office of Safety and Risk Management.
Photo by Jay Bailey.

If you go

* What: 2013 Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee Pageant.

* When: Crowning ceremony, 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

* Where: Doubletree Hotel, 407 Chestnut St.

* Contestants: Ashley Grimes, Cleveland; Bliss Welch, Harrison; Christina Earheart, Springfield; Jessica Goodman, Knoxville.

* Who's eligible: Contestants must be between the ages of 6 to 60, use a wheelchair 100 percent of the time and be a resident of Tennessee.

* Admission: free.

* Contact: 756-5150.

Jean-Marie Lawrence is a woman on the move.

The trouble is that moving from one place to another can be an impossible challenge -- not because she's in a wheelchair, she says, but because of transportation issues in Chattanooga.

For the past year, Lawrence, as 2012 Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, has made it her mission to make others, especially politicians, aware of transportation problems for local residents with disabilities.

"As Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, my platform has been to raise awareness of the barriers that still exist in public transportation for people with disabilities," says Lawrence, 26, who recently earned a master's degree in public administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she's an intern with the Office of Safety and Risk Management.

"Although there are many people with disabilities who drive, there are still a great deal of those who do not or cannot. While I can drive and do plan on getting my license in the future, I travel by paratransit (CARTA Care-A-Van) or the fixed-route CARTA buses," she explains.

Lawrence says sidewalk access is Chattanooga's biggest flaw for people with disabilities. Though local buses are equipped with lifts and tie-downs for wheelchairs and offer priority seating at the front of the bus, not all the bus stops are accessible to people with disabilities.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of improvements to be made," Lawrence says. "Many fixed-route stops are not accessible because they are in the middle of the grass or on a sidewalk with no curb cut.

"Aside from fixed-route and paratransit services, there is no other completely accessible transportation in Chattanooga. No taxi companies have wheelchair accessible cabs," Lawrence says.

Lisa Maragnano, assistant executive director at CARTA, agrees with Lawrence.

"Bus stops are placed based on demand and many have been in place for years, but we are looking at all stops and coordinating with the City of Chattanooga to make improvements. It's an ongoing project," Maragnano says.

Lawrence, who served on the Mayor's Council on Disability, established by Mayor Ron Littlefield in 2006, has met with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and Chattanooga's newly elected mayor, Andy Berke, to discuss the issues.

"He (Berke) has some great plans for the city, and although I am passing my title on soon, I hope to meet with him to discuss these vital transportation barriers within Chattanooga. Working from a grassroots level, taking on barriers city by city, is how I believe the most change and improvements can be made," Lawrence says.

Littlefield says Lawrence "was an obvious appointment to the council because of her commitment to the disability community and her important role of assisting a large number of disabled staff and student body at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga."

Lawrence will give up her title as Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee on Saturday at the 2013 Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee Pageant, which is being held in the Doubletree Hotel in Chattanooga. There are four contestants for this year's title. To be eligible for participation in the Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee competition, a contestant must be within the age range of 6 to 60, use a wheelchair 100 percent of the time and be a resident of Tennessee.

"This is not a beauty pageant. It is a celebration of individuality, advocacy, and achievement," says Knoxville resident Samantha Moreno, the pageant's state coordinator and former Ms. Wheelchair Oklahoma. "Each contestant has an understanding of her community and its needs. She works every day to help meet those needs by changing minds and policies."

Many people have a misconception that individuals with disabilities do not enjoy being active or competitive, Moreno says, but "this is not true. These women (competing in the pageant) push themselves to be great."

The pageant also recognizes young girls and teens in Junior Miss and Little Miss categories.

"It is important for young people with disabilities to be recognized for their abilities and not for what they look like," Moreno says. "It is great to see the younger girls when they meet these women who have done so much. It gives them something to look forward to and someone to model themselves after."

Lawrence says a highlight of her reign was speaking at Chattanooga's celebration last year at the anniversary of the American With Disabilities Act.

"The passing of the Disabilities Act (in 1990) was such a huge milestone in the disability rights movement," Lawrence says. "Without it, I don't know that the Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee organization, or any other of the state organizations, would have the impact that they do."

Lawrence says her advocacy work will continue even when she gives up her crown.

"I'm not done just because I can't pull out a tiara everywhere I go," she says. "There is still so much more to do -- more places to go in Tennessee and more chances to speak out and impact communities."

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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