The gowns were resplendent and the music uplifting, it was fun. We were all dancing in our wheelchairs. Those are the sentiments Tabassum Chagani shared on social media, that caused me to reach out to hear her story. She recounts her experience participating in the 2017 Miss Wheelchair Canada pageant and her journey to get there.
The Inaugural Miss Wheelchair Pageant
This pageant was organized by The Wheelchair Dance Sports Association of Canada. September 2017 was the inaugural debut of the Canadian pageant. The criteria for participation was mainly how comfortable we were in our skin; how comfortable we were being in a wheelchair and being ourselves.
We were trained and guided by able-bodied instructors to practice various routines, primarily ballroom and Latin.
You just have fun. You just feel the excitement, the emotions, and the chemistry with your partner and you do the dance moves. You do those positions to the best of your ability.
On the day of the pageant, we were asked very broad questions like tell us about yourself. That gave each of us two to two-and-a-half minutes, keep in mind that the pageant is patterned after the Miss Universe extravaganza with the winner of the national competition going on to represent her country at Miss Wheelchair World.
Organizing The Pageant
Finding a venue, soliciting sponsors and recruiting contestants was by no means an easy feat. We put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time. It took us about 10 months to put everything together.
It was a four-day event; three days for the rehearsal, photoshoot in wedding gowns and media coverage and the fourth day was the finale. I was the first runner-up.
Now that the inaugural Miss Wheelchair Canada is under our belt, we are anxious to expand and perhaps host Miss Wheelchair World next year in Vancouver. We want more participants and definitely more spectators and sponsors. We would also like to see participants from different parts of Canada. And why not? (Check below for the Learn More header to find links.)
We’re not trying to do things like an able-bodied person would do, we’re only trying to be part of the mainstream. It’s all about inclusion. It’s all about being included in all spheres of life. Even if I don’t get an award, I said to myself, just participating could be inspirational for others and that’s exactly what I was trying to do – inspire others to rise! Break the shell around them, spread their wings and fly.
Where My Personal Dance Began
I am the youngest of three siblings and grew up in a large, multi-generational house in Karachi, Pakistan. I immigrated to Canada in 1994 and have lived in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia since then.
Like other Pakistani children, at the time, I was also immunized for polio as a child by oral polio vaccine. I took the drops but contracted polio, nevertheless, at age one. It was either a bad batch or it was just not working. I still got polio. It started as a flu-like illness and, by the time the symptoms subsided, my mother found I didn’t want to move. The doctor said ‘well, it’s unfortunate, but your daughter’s been paralyzed in one leg by polio.”
I wore a series of braces, above the knee, below the knee and, at one time, a boot. “I was never able to play with other children nor was I able to take part in physical activities like other children. I have never been able to run, dance or participate in any sport. Students pushed me around at school. That made me very angry because I was not like everyone else. I used to ask myself, ‘why am I different? Why can’t I do everything that other children are doing?’ That made me very, very angry.”
I played with my siblings and cousins instead. There was never a time when I was sitting alone or reading books or sulking and crying or feeling sorry for myself. I was determined to show everyone that I was no different from anybody else.
Getting On With A Career
I pursued a medical degree at Karachi University in Pakistan and graduated as a medical doctor (M.B., B.S.) in 1985.
When I was going to med school with other girls and boys and I didn’t want to go in my braces. I just said to myself, ‘to hell with it. I’m not going to wear these braces because they’re ugly.’ I was a teenager and teenagers talk like that. I was quite rebellious.
I left Pakistan in 1990. Things were pretty bad; the level of corruption was skyrocketing. I immigrated to Los Angeles and then in 1994, I moved to Vancouver and took a job as a research assistant at St. Paul’s Hospital. Other positions followed – as a laboratory manager and as a histologist – until a colleague suggested that I pursue a career in medical research.
In 2004, I enrolled at UBC. I worked in biomedical research for several years with professors and assistant professors hashing out a lot of data. It was monotonous. It got me to a point where I was thinking, “yes, I’m getting a paycheque but am I enjoying doing what I’m doing?’ And I wasn’t. So, from that, using my medical background, I moved to medical claims examiner with a travel insurance company because I wanted a change.
The Dance of Aging
My body was changing, too. Once you hit 45 or 50, post-polio syndrome shows up. The fatigue level increases, there’s a loss of a balance, aches, and pains. Sleeping problems can arise. For me, walking had become extremely difficult to impossible. Now in a wheelchair, I toiled at the travel insurance company for nine years until the pain became unbearable. I got to a point where I just couldn’t manage the stress of a nine-to-five job and I decided to quit altogether.
I enjoyed being out of work for a while; sleeping in, going out, meeting friends, knitting, reading and catching up on things I had put on the back burner for years. But, more importantly, I finally found peace.
In my 20’s and 30’s, I was fighting this uphill battle and, each time, I was fighting a battle I was losing. But I kept fighting because I didn’t know any better, I have always fretted over my appearance.
When I hit my forties, I realized, “what the heck if I am in a wheelchair, if I am walking on my hands instead of my legs, who cares?” What is important is who I am, and that is when I had accepted being in a wheelchair and using a wheelchair. It’s okay if I have a disability. It’s okay if I cannot walk and run like others. People will find me as attractive, as sexy and as desirable as anyone else. That was the biggest motivation and transformation that got me into the Miss Wheelchair pageant.
My daily routine has changed. I tire easily, but I look after myself well. I sleep well and don’t drink or smoke. I conserve my energy.
The Next Dance
Taking care of myself allows me to look after my 83-year-old mother and I am working part-time from home for Travel for All, Inc as an Accessible Travel Specialist. Mobility can be a new or increasingly difficult challenge as we age. You might think traveling is no longer an option. I can tell you that is not the case and I can share solutions. After all, I know that dance well.
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