Having won Ms Wheelchair Florida in 2015, it was a big leap for Sara Gaver to compete in an all able-bodied Miss Florida USA pageant – but that is exactly what she was preparing to do when I interviewed her in 2020. Now, as the first person in a wheelchair to have competed the 2021 Miss Florida USA pageant, Sara Gaver is changing perceptions and advocating for inclusion.
As the interview begins, Sara chuckles ruefully and admits to having been nervous about being the one person in a wheelchair amid an entirely able-bodied community. She describes the experience that helped:
“The first day of the pageant, everyone had to do a wardrobe change in a giant conference room – in front of one another – in preparation for a group photo. After the picture was taken, we all went back to the room to change clothes again! There was something about being in that big room, all of us changing clothes at the same time that just brought us together. After that, we went from ‘strangers’ to ‘sisters’.”
Sara continues to recollect “At the end of that pageant weekend, I had made friends but I didn’t feel like I had done my best. I felt that I wasn’t really prepared since I didn’t have goals beyond just doing the competition. Granted, I am proud that I did achieve that ambitious goal but I want to do more so it was important to me to compete again this year with a new objective.”
“This year, I wanted to leave the organization different from when I came in and I wanted to change the perspective of others to accept all women into an able-bodied pageant.”
Going above and beyond
What was the reception from the pageant organizers when you told them you were coming back?
Sara’s voice warmed and the words rushed out. “They literally said ‘heck yes’, we want to have you back! The woman who runs it is such a warm-hearted person. She just said, ‘We aren’t sure what to do to make it better, but we are certainly going to try.’ They succeeded. They made an exception for me so I could have my mom stay with me and they even had a choreographer make special dance moves just for me!”
Prior to interviewing Sara, I researched the Miss Florida USA pageant. I only saw impossibly tall, extremely thin, long-legged women. No one in a wheelchair. Yet Sara, sitting at 4 feet tall, choose to roll on to a stage full of glamorous models to compete in evening gown and bathing suit categories. Sara Gaver is changing perceptions and advocating for inclusion. Impressive. I asked her how she did it.
“I prepped a bit better, took make-up lessons, and definitely went to the gym. No matter what pageant you are in, it is always the same things that you are judged on: interview, formal wear, physical fitness. You pick your own clothes and pay for them yourself. You want what fits you best, you don’t necessarily have to be a size zero.”
This year, I won the Girl Bossing Award. There are only 6 girls chosen, it’s a real honor. The award celebrates the girl who really goes above and beyond. And they chose me!” Sara beamed.
About Cure Medical
Among her other affiliations, Sara is part of the Cure Nation. When asked why this is important to her, she refers back to the fact that Cure Medical supports medical research.
“I’ve never heard of any other company doing that! It is nice to be a part of a company that gives back to the community and tries to help individuals increase independence. When my values align with a company, it makes me feel like we are all working for the same things.”
Sara has tackled many big projects. One is still in the works. Sara has a rare disease known as Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita which doesn’t allow her to lift her arms more than a few inches off of her lap. She looks towards technology to give her greater independence.
“If I had a robotic arm, I’d be able to feed myself, brush my own teeth, etc. etc. Unfortunately, the technology is expensive and so far, my insurance has denied coverage.”
Most people would give up after receiving a denial, but this is Sara Gaver Ms Wheelchair Florida we are talking about. She assures me that she has not given up. Even if the expense isn’t approved, the process of advocating and representing herself has value for helping to change perceptions on how ‘a need’ is defined. While her appeal continues, Sara is seriously considering doing another pageant.
Pageants and conferences
“The Miss USA pageants focus on poise, intelligence, how well you present yourself. Whereas the Ms Wheelchair America organization doesn’t use the word ‘pageant’ to describe their competitions. They call it an ‘empowerment conference’; it is all about advocacy.”
Which is Sara’s preference? As usual, she has firm opinions of her own.
“On one hand, I don’t want to only be judged on my appearance. However, when you leave beauty completely out of it, something important is missed. I feel like there’s a huge difference between going out looking like I just rolled out of bed versus putting myself together with thought and preparation.”
“I love pageants. It is a great way for the next generation of girls to see role models who look like they do. We have the opportunity to change the whole atmosphere for the next generation! Isn’t that my responsibility?” she asked rhetorically.