Shelly Gray ’92 doesn’t consider herself a beauty pageant girl.
So when her friend, a paraplegic who runs a nonprofit for spinal cord injuries, suggested that she look into the Ms. Wheelchair America competition, Gray at first resisted.
“At the time, I kind of blew it off,” she said.
After doing some research, however, Gray, who has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair full-time since 2008, realized that the competition is not about beauty. Instead, it’s about activism, public speaking, and disability awareness. As she learned more about the pageant, which consists of a leadership conference, interviews with judges, and a speech on the subject of the contestant’s choice, Gray found herself drawn to the idea of learning more about disability rights advocacy.
“That appealed to me more than anything about beauty,” she said. “There’s no talent. People of all kinds of abilities have won. There have been some that look like beauty queens, but there have been some with no arms and no legs, and some with muscular dystrophy. It just doesn’t matter.”
Gray, who was born and raised in Texas, quickly signed up for her state’s competition.
“I know you’ll be surprised that Texas has the biggest pageant in the country,” she said, laughing. “Our crown is also the biggest.”
Gray won that crown in February 2015 and then spent a week in Des Moines, Iowa, competing for the national title of Ms. Wheelchair America in July with representatives from the 20-some states that host such pageants. Somewhat perplexingly, there are two American pageants for women in wheelchairs: Ms. Wheelchair America, which Gray characterized as being focused on disability advocacy and awareness, and Ms. Wheelchair U.S.A., which is purely about beauty.
“There is no Ms. Wheelchair Texas that would go to the Ms. Wheelchair U.S.A. pageant,” Gray said. “There’s just no contest.”
Although she didn’t win the national title of Ms. Wheelchair America—a fact for which Gray confessed to be privately glad—the competitions in both Texas and later in Des Moines allowed her to meet a variety of other disabled women and quickly became friends.
“It was so cool to meet all these other women from all across the country with all sorts of disabilities doing their thing,” she said. “Some have been disabled for life; some have spinal chord injuries; some, like me, got diseases later in life. So it was really cool to see all of that.”
As Texas’ reigning queen, Gray finds herself in a unique spot: the state has long been tied to disability rights activism.
“Houston was sort of the epicenter of a lot of disability rights history,” she said. “[At the state competition] we got to have a lot of cool exposure to folks who have been doing stuff for years and years.”
A moment that stands out to Gray is meeting Lex Frieden, a man who suffered a spinal cord injury following an accident in the late 1960s. Later, in 1990, Frieden helped usher the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 through Congress, and was present for its signing by President George H. W. Bush. Besides prominent activists such as Frieden, however, much of Gray’s education came from her fellow six contestants in the Texas competition.
“What amazed me was that two of them were in car wrecks, and they were there with their fiancé and their sister [who had been involved in the wrecks],” she said. “And there was a woman who was carjacked and became a quadriplegic. She had gone to court and forgiven the man who had carjacked her. What I learned from all of this is that forgiveness is really what allows you to move forward in life. You have to let go of anger and resentment.”
Even for Gray, who was not in an accident, forgiveness has been key to emotional survival.
“I got multiple sclerosis diagnosed in 1999, and I was in law school when that happened,” she said. “It’s a progressive disease, and I’ve had to do this constant grieving process of losing abilities pretty much on a regular basis for 16 years now. One of the ways that I’ve been able to mentally survive that is just to let it go—to say, ‘O.K., I can’t do these things anymore, but look, I can still do these things’. These other women who had also reached that level of forgiveness strengthened my ability to advocate for myself and others.”
At the national conference, too, Gray found herself awed by her fellow contestants’ accomplishments.
“Most of them didn’t think they’d live very long,” she said. “The woman who ended up becoming Ms. Wheelchair America, they told her mom she’d die within a couple of years. Not only did she not do that, but she’s in her 40s or 50s and has two PhDs and has adopted a daughter.”
Gray is ambivalent about using the term “inspirational,” often used to describe people with disabilities, but she nonetheless derives strength and meaning from other disabled women.
“I hate to use the word ‘inspirational,’ because that can be really offensive to people with disabilities—don’t call me inspiration just because I’m in a wheelchair, right?” she said. “But it’s inspirational to me to see people who have overcome obstacles and challenges and achieved success despite that. Everybody is teaching you something.”
Reigning as Ms. Wheelchair Texas has been a thrilling whirlwind.
“It has totally changed my life,” she said. “This past year, I’ve done dozens of speeches and appearances. They really only require you to do one a month, but I’m sort of like, ‘Hey, if we’re in for a penny, let’s be in for a pound, and get ’er done.’ I go all over the place.”
One speaking engagement on the horizon, however, looms terrifying.
“I’m sort of freaked out, because next Friday I’m speaking to the middle-school students at the middle school where I went,” she said, laughing. “Who knew I’d be so scared of middle-school students? I’m a lawyer; I speak all over the country; I don’t care. But the middle-school students make me nervous.”
Born and raised in Austin, Gray had always known growing up that she wanted to attend a liberal arts school on the east coast. She applied to a variety of such schools, including Wesleyan and similar institutions. Her parents were keen on the idea of Wellesley over Wesleyan, even more so when the family visited Wesleyan on Zonker Harris Day.
“You can imagine, my parents were like, ‘You are not going here,’” she said. “I said, ‘This is exactly where I’m going.’ I sent in my acceptance letter without telling them.”
As an undergraduate, Gray, who majored in sociology, took part in musical theater and dance.
“I loved it,” she said.
Gray’s relationship with her able-bodied past is complicated, although not mournful.
“I was the president of the drill team in high school,” she said. “I’ve always been pretty active. But I will say that I never liked to exercise. I never liked to jog, and now I can’t.”
Despite the health challenges she faces, Gray believes that having multiple sclerosis has dramatically altered her worldview for the better.
“It did bring me around to this forgiveness and to accepting myself no matter what my flaws,” she said. “Before I was disabled, I was always trying to achieve this ideal. I’ve got to be this certain thing, be it looks, or accomplishments, or whatever. Now I don’t really see it that way. I have to raise a happy, healthy child. I have to be happy and healthy myself, and have the best life I can have. Those are the more realistic goals that I think it’s more important for people to focus on. I do look back on it, but I don’t look back on it with sadness or melancholy. I say, ‘Wow, I used to be able to do this, and now I can’t anymore. But I did it! Neat-o.’”
Thanks to modern science and technology, Gray sees opportunities to enjoy the things she once could as an able-bodied woman as endless. She has paralyzed friends who have water-skied and snow-skied; she noted that hot-air balloons are now wheelchair accessible, and that it’s possible to sky-dive. Gray recently signed autographs at an amusement park that’s completely wheelchair accessible.
“The kids looked at me like, ‘I can be a person?’” she said. “Yes, you can!”
Parenting too, has been a joy. The single mother of a nine-year-old son, Gray plans to appear in a Webinar for a North Texas organization for parenting with disabilities. She will also speak to the aforementioned middle-schoolers and collaborate with Little Ms. Wheelchair Texas, a five-year-old.
Gray maintains that the biggest issue facing Americans with disabilities today is still access, usually coupled with prejudice.
“There are all kinds of laws and prejudices that keep people with disabilities from having children, or adopting children, or keeping children,” she said. “Similar to the fact that everyone seems to think that racism is cured just because we have a black president, disability discrimination is not cured just because we have the ADA. The ADA helps a lot, but it doesn’t stop the bad attitudes and the fear.”
Gray’s career as an employment lawyer for a state agency has allowed her to merge her disability rights activism and her work. In counseling management on personnel issues, Gray finds herself in a powerful position.
“What I can help people understand is that just because Joe Schmo is disabled, or in a wheelchair, doesn’t mean he can’t do his job,” she said. “And just because Joe Schmo is acting a bit crazy, it doesn’t mean he can’t do that job. It just means we need to give him more tools.”
Moreover, it’s her personal experience with discrimination that helps Gray confront and solve employment issues.
“I deal a lot with discrimination issues [at work], whether it’s race, gender, disability, religion,” she said. “Not only do I know the law, but I also experience a lot of it firsthand. I counsel folks in a way that others can’t.”