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.