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Ms. Wheelchair America contestants compete for title in Grand Rapids

Current Ms. Wheelchair America Catherine Burke says it's a lot more than a competition.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — This year's 18 participants for Ms. Wheelchair America will be competing for the title this week in Grand Rapids. They're joined by volunteers and previous competitors, including current Ms. Wheelchair America Christine Burke.

She recalls the speechless moment she won her first crown as Ms. Wheelchair California.

"I'm a communications major. And I don't have words to say, which is a conundrum," Burke said.

This year, she'll get to pass the crown to the next winner. However, she says it's a lot more than a competition.

"We're doing advocacy work to really change our world around us," Burke said. "It's more voices coming together."

She says it's necessary to give voice to the community, given the stigma they continue to face in all facets of life.

"You really see the kind of algorithm bias at work," Burke said. "Because I do put Ms. Wheelchair America and I'm not going to take that off, but I think they see wheelchair."

It's a stigma Experience Grand Rapids has been working to overcome for years.

"But it's just a wonderful testimony," Janet Korn from Experience Grand Rapids said. "Their willingness to trust us as a destination to host that group, that we are accessible."

She adds that there's still more work to be done to make the city easily accessible to people of all abilities, and this event will help them find what needs work.

"It also helps our team just kind of improve if there were any improvements that we needed to make in order to accommodate that group," Korn said.

On Saturday, the top five competitors will meet the public and this year's winner will be announced.

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