By Stephanie Bolmer
Karli Miller is the current reigning Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania. She’s also Jewish.
“I am one of very few, if not the only, current Jewish contestants in the Ms. Wheelchair America circuit,” said Miller. “That’s a strong part of my identity, and I really want to share that and educate people about how Jewish folks with disability might view it differently than Christian or other folks with disability. It’s part of what makes me unique, if you will.”
Miller will be joining another local speaker, Jennifer Einstein, at the PJ Library Celebrates Differences event on Jan. 26 as part of Federation’s Super Sunday. That program, put on in partnership with Jewish Family Service as part of their observance of Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, will give Miller the chance to talk with local families about what makes all of us unique, including her.
A 25-year-old graduating from West Chester University with a master’s degree in communications, the Pennsylvania champion says it’s a funny story about how she got involved with the Ms. Wheelchair program in the first place.
“I messaged the coordinator after meeting her at an abilities expo in New Jersey where they have things like the latest wheelchair technology and other devices, and she said, ‘I’m sending you an application, we’re already signing you up!’” recalled Miller.
The next step was to choose her platform. Miller decided on something she was already passionate about—"inclusive body positivity for individuals with and without disabilities."
“I always grew up struggling with different aspects of my identity, particularly my weight, which is variable due to PCOS,” explained Miller. “I was always self-conscious of my weight, and when I started using a mobility aid on top of that, I would do everything I could to keep it out of photos. I’d have friends help me stand, try to hide crutches out of the photo, things like that. I would do anything to try to look like the image I thought I was supposed to have.”
But, then, she made a life-changing discovery online.
“I found the body positivity movement on Instagram,” said Miller. “A whole community of people of every size, with or without mobility aids and disabilities. They were just loving themselves, and I latched onto that because I was craving that.”
She made that part of her platform because, as she explained, “Often people with disabilities are left out of that. I want to share how body positivity changed my life and how it can become more inclusive. Let’s show people with ventilation tubes and trachs and hearing aids and how they live authentically and happily.”
Next came the actual competition, which included submitting an application highlighting all of her academic accolades, extracurriculars and hobbies as well as explaining her disability status. Once selected to compete, she traveled to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for a full day of conference seminars on topics such as adaptive styling with a fashion designer, creating an adaptive workout, knowing your rights and how to market yourself. Four judges judged individual sessions, and the next day, contestants gave their platform speeches at a forum open to the public, while also being judged on that and asked two questions in front of the audience.
After winning the Pennsylvania title, Miller now has the opportunity to raise awareness about her platform while preparing for the national competition for Ms. Wheelchair America this Aug. 17-23 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is keeping herself busy not only fundraising for her journey to nationals, but also speaking at events like Super Sunday. In January, she also visited the Lehigh Valley Pet Expo with her service dog in training.
“We had a kissing booth set up where you got to meet the dogs to raise money for nationals,” said Miller.
The Lehigh Valley Jewish community will have more opportunities to meet Miller throughout the year, as she is working with JFS to create more disability awareness programming. The partnership with JFS is a natural one, as Miller grew up in Congregation Keneseth Israel and was a JFS intern at age 19.
“I wasn’t using a wheelchair then. Things are a little bit different now,” remarked Miller.
Although she has developed a neuromuscular condition leading her to using mobility aids since then—“my brain and my limbs don’t always communicate well”—Miller is still making an impact on the Jewish community and the world at large.
Ms. Wheelchair America is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 1972 by a Columbus, Ohio, physician, Dr. Philip K. Wood, as a forum for the promotion of the achievements, as well as the needs of, people with mobility impairments. Miller works together with Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania State Coordinator Barb Zablotney and four Ms. Wheelchair PA Ambassadors, Kate Chasar, Jessica Gardner, Amanda Urgolites and Megan Patrick.
To learn more about Karli Miller and her work as Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania, follow her on her Facebook page at “Ms. Wheelchair Pennsylvania 2020 - Karli Miller” (@mwpa2020).