Contest aims to dispell stereotypes of women with disabilities

After a skiing accident left a teenage Jennifer Kreutzer paralyzed 15 years ago, she decided the disability wouldn't stop her life.

She's a wife. A mom. A businesswoman. A Girl Scout leader. A sled hockey player.

And as the new Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, Kreutzer, 31, is an advocate for wheelchair users and disabled women across the state.

"I just kept going with my life as if nothing had happened," Kreutzer said, remembering the days following her accident.

"I wanted my life to be what it was going to be anyways."

Crowned April 23 after a two-day competition in Topeka, Kreutzer will compete next in the Ms. Wheelchair America competition, Aug. 1-7 in Grand Rapids, Mich. She will compete against 28 women from around the nation in a weeklong contest.

It's not your average pageant, said Carrie Greenwood, Kansas state coordinator for the Ms. Wheelchair contest.

Started in 1972 by an Ohio physician, Ms. Wheelchair competitions are "about recognizing strong women in the community and the message they have to share," Greenwood said.

"We are breaking down stereotypes about what a person with a disability is," she added.

Greenwood, the first state titleholder, brought the competition to Kansas in 2004 to "recognize women in wheelchairs and recognize them in a positive way," she said.

This year, two women participated: Kreutzer and Emily McCulley, also of Wichita.

Greenwood said she hopes to recruit more contestants with Kreutzer's help.

"I think Jenny is wonderful," Greenwood said. "She is very motivated.

"She's one of those people who got her disability later on in life, but she took it and ran with it."

In 1996, Kreutzer, then 16, broke her back after she hit a tree while skiing. After four months of rehabilitation in Colorado, she returned to her hometown of Hays to focus on a short-term goal of walking across the stage for her high school graduation.

Then, and in college, she used leg braces. But today, Kreutzer uses her wheelchair for all of her daily activities.

A busy Koch Industries employee, wife, and mom to daughters Kelsie, 9, and Karlie, 5, Kreutzer said she has no feeling below her knees.

"If I lost my balance and hurt my arm, I would really be in a pickle," she said, laughing.

"I've always been a hard worker, and I don't think that the accident changed that in any way," Kreutzer said. "It probably made me more determined."

For more information about becoming a contestant or sponsor, or to request an appearance by Ms. Wheelchair Kansas, contact Greenwood at 785-267-5982 or visit www.mswheelchairkansas.org.