Former Ms. Wheelchair America leader advocates for inclusion

Personality, poise, and a positive attitude were among the attributes that propelled Stephanie Deible to the Ms. Wheelchair Michigan crown in 2012.

But it was after the Newaygo County woman retired her diamond tiara that she really began to shine as the chief organizer of the organization’s national competition.

In August 2021, Deible completed a seven-year run as executive director of Ms. Wheelchair America Inc. She coordinated weeklong leadership and advocacy competitions in which winners representing most states compete for the national title – and the broad exposure the title brings to whatever platform is chosen. 

“My work with Ms. Wheelchair America brought me into contact with truly remarkable women of all ages,” says Deible, now 32. “Some were quite new to the disability community, while others have been living with disabilities their whole lives. There were lawyers, mothers, business leaders, educators, and college students. There was such diversity in experiences and perspectives that -- when we came together to share – it was enlightening and very special.”

Stephanie Deibel is the former executive director of Ms. Wheelchair America.

Ms. Wheelchair events are not about outward beauty. Advocacy, education and leadership in disability issues are the focal points of the organization. Contestants must rely on a wheelchair for mobility and must be at 21 years of age. There is no upper age limit. 

Deible says she believes her life has been forever improved by the caliber of women with disabilities that she met through envisioning and organizing the national events. She sought out individuals who could help contestants improve advocacy skills, communicate effectively, and better connect with prominent leaders and community resources.

Too often, she believes, people with disabilities are crippled by the low expectations of those around them. The bottom line: Support and innovation coupled with higher expectations encourage greater participation and generate higher satisfaction and higher achievement.

“Ms. Wheelchair America gave me the support system I needed to get where I want to go,” says Deible, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Grand Valley State University. “Before that, there were things I wanted to do, but I didn’t necessarily know how until I saw others who are like me doing the things they wanted. That motivates me not to settle.”

Growing up in the small Newaygo County city of Grant – with its population of slightly fewer than 1,000 people -- Deible says she didn’t know anybody else who needed to use a wheelchair – at least not all the time.

Stephanie Deible with her family.

Learning advocacy skills young

Deible’s start in life was precarious. She weighed just 2 pounds and 8 ounces when she was born at 27 weeks gestation. That was pretty much the threshold of viability in her birth year, 1990. Like many who are born severely pre-term, Deible has cerebral palsy, which causes abnormal muscle tone. Her leg muscles are too under-developed for her to walk.

It was not expected that the youngest daughter of David and Hilda Deible would have the strength to attend regular school. Nevertheless, Stephanie Deible became the first permanent wheelchair user to go through Grant’s K-12 school system. 

While she was still a small child, Deible learned to advocate for necessary accommodations at school, such as ramps, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, student desks that a wheelchair user could roll under, and a wheelchair-accessible bus.

“While things were not and are not always accessible, from a young age my family, physical and occupational therapists, aides, peers, and school personnel really empowered me to take an active role in asking for the things that I needed,” Deible says. “I was also encouraged to express my hopes for the future. That was so critical for me. It allowed me to understand that my perspectives mattered.” 

From the time she was 10 years old, Deible said she was allowed to sit in on parts of her annual IEP (federally mandated Individual Educational Plan) meetings at school and declare her preferences and desires.  

“Being included in those types of conversations and decisions helped me find my voice,” Deible says, noting that society’s habit has been to make decisions on behalf of people with disabilities. ”Those experiences set the foundation for where I am today.”

Stephanie Deibel speaks to a group.
Coming full circle

People with disabilities who live in small towns often encounter transportation barriers unless they can drive themselves. Social isolation is sometimes the direct result. 

That easily could have become Deible’s fate. Rural Newaygo County has no public transit. It’s at least an hour away from where people with most disabilities would likely be seen by health care professionals.

But Deible is a blue-sky thinker. 

She insists that growing up in Newaygo County served as prime preparation for learning how to organize a large event like the Ms. Wheelchair America competitions. 

“Growing up in a rural community made me really think outside the box and get creative,” Deible says. “Living in the country teaches you to plan in a whole different way. There aren’t always a lot of resources. I had to find rides almost everywhere I needed to go.  More strategic coordinating is required than if you live in a densely populated area and have access to public transportation.”

Her first success organizing a unique event was while she was a student at GVSU. She put on a Roll-a-Thon in which people – regardless of disability status – had the opportunity to try adaptive equipment and activities. Deible, like most sports fanatics, also relishes opportunities to participate.

Deible’s upbringing in rural Grant, she says, also served as excellent preparation for one aspect of her new position as community inclusion specialist for Disability Network West Michigan, which provides independent living resources for people with disabilities living in Newaygo, Muskegon, Oceana, Lake, and Mason counties. She now facilitates a transportation program that connects people with disabilities to volunteer drivers, allowing participants to engage in social and personal activities such as going to church, visiting family and friends, having lunch at a restaurant, visiting a park, or attending a medical appointment.

As executive director of Ms. Wheelchair America, she envisioned and executed a week’s worth of activities involving hundreds of people. There was occasional business travel, but mostly she was able to work from her parents’ Newaygo County home. 

The full-time position was richly rewarding – but unpaid – which is why last summer Deible accepted a paid position helping other Newaygo County residents with disabilities find resources to meet transportation, employment, housing and other needs.

She has already established herself as a local advocate for universal design, which means environments that are constructed to be used by all people, with and without disabilities.

In practical terms, this means things like ramps, wide doorways and hallways, showers that can be rolled into, and toilets with sufficient space for a person with any type of mobility device, are considered and included when products and spaces are created.

“Everybody deserves a place at the table,” Deible says. “When we talk about accessibility, that’s quite literal.”

This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

Read more articles by Kym Reinstadler.