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The women on the ramp in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, early this month were no ordinary models – they were personification of independence, women’s rights and self-esteem. They came to the Polish capital from different parts of the world and amid wheelchairs, facilities for audio descriptions and translation from and into sign language and induction loops at Arena Ursynów, emerged as manifestos of women’s emancipation.

Aleksandra Chichikova, 23, a student from Belarus, won the title but all 24 young women from 19 countries were winners at the first Miss Wheelchair World beauty pageant organized to break barriers, overcome stereotypes and change the perception that disability is a limitation.

The global event also fostered integration and exchange of information on the latest scientific and medical achievements.

After organizing four editions of Miss Poland Wheelchair, the Only One Foundation decided to go global and organize a world event. Women on wheelchairs from all over the world were invited to apply for the Miss Wheelchair World contest.

From among the applications submitted by candidates from several dozen countries, the jury selected 24 finalists who went to Warsaw in late September. They were offered a wide array of attractions, from tours around the most interesting places in Warsaw, to meetings with inspiring people, to workshops during which they prepared for the Final Gala, assisted by photographers and choreographers.

The jury chose two contests from each of the participating countries irrespective of the application from them.

The 24 contestants were: Victoria José (Angola), Aleksandra Chichikova (Belarus), Carla Maia (Brazil), Vahen King (Canada), MaríaDíaz (Chile), Paula Miranda (Chile), Kati van der Hoeven (Finland), Sandrine Ciron (France), Nadjet Meskine (France), Pahola Solano (Guatemala), Priya Bhargava (India), Rajalakshmi Shankar Janardhana Murthy (India), Laura Miola (Italy), Karen Rocha (Mexico), Ludmila Iachim (Moldova), Mirande Bakker (the Netherlands), Beata Jałocha (Poland),  Adrianna Zawadzińska (Poland), Alena Tiapkova (Russia), Lebohang Monyatsi (the Republic of South Africa), Oksana Kononets (Ukraine), Uliana Pcholkina (Ukraine), Jennifer Lynn Adams (USA) and Angelina Waleskaya (Belarus).

Indian dentist Rajalakshmi Shankar Janardhana Murthy won the Miss Popularity title. There were 11 titles to win at the pageant but, 28-year-old professional wheelchair tennis player from Chile Maria Diaz said, “It doesn’t matter who wins the crown. We are all winners.”

All young women were winners at this beauty pageant as they wheeled down the ramp in elegant evening dresses and perfectly styled hair and make-up.

The contestants spoke about why they were in wheelchairs.

Indian dental specialist Rajalakshmi SJ had a spinal cord injury after a road accident when she was 21. Unsuccessful surgeries led to a life on a wheelchair. Maria Diaz was shot by a stranger ten years ago. Polish kinesiotherapist Beata Jalocha is using a wheelchair since 2013 when a suicide jumper landed on her.

Katarzyna Wojtaszek-Ginalska head of the Only One Foundation and jury president said the pageant looked beyond looks to choose the winner. “Of course, good looks count but we have focused especially on the personalities of the girls, their everyday activities,” Wojtaszek-Ginalska told French news agency AFP.

“It’s a common saying of handicapped women that we didn’t ask to be handicapped, that we would happily get rid of our handicaps, that we want to be considered ordinary people after all,” she added. “Of course we are on wheelchairs, but that is a fate that can hit anyone, anytime.”

The 36-year-old handicapped mother spoke about other projects of the foundation. The Only One Mom is a project aiming at integration of mothers with disability for them to exchange experience or information on adapted gynaecological examination offices. Every year the foundation has their Only One team in a run Wings for Life World Run, of which the total income goes towards research on a damaged spinal cord.

The foundation is based out of Ciechocinek, a well-known spa town in central Poland, and was started by two disabled mothers who wanted to direct attention to the matters of women with disability in society.

The winners:

Aleksandra Chichikova studies psychology and social pedagogy and aspired to break down stigmas surrounding people with disabilities. The 23-year-old said at the celebratory contest gala, “Fight your anxiety and your fears.”

Her contestant profile reads: “I am convinced my life can illustrate that a person may be successful, strong, purpose-driven, beautiful and attractive regardless of how he moves. I really enjoy watching people change their mind and attitude towards disabled people. They start to see an equal person, not someone with disability.”

After she started using a wheelchair, Indian doctors Rajalakshmi SJ completed bachelors of dental surgery, did a course in psychology, fashion designing, vedic yoga, wheeled the ramp for Orion Fashion Week 2015 and won the gold medal in Master’s of Dental Surgery.

Her contestant profile reads: “I am chairperson of my organization S J Foundation which works for the causes of the disabled. I have won a legal battle for the rights of disabled in education, organized Miss Wheelchair India 2015, and am a peer trainer for wheelchair training programs.”

She has participated in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair dance. Rajalakshmi has travelled eleven different countries on her wheelchair. She loves driving her customized hand driven car and has mapped various road trips across Karnataka.

She is winner of 2014 Miss Wheelchair India and modeling is one of her several passions.

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