To the cheer of the audience and the flashing of cameras, management of technology graduate student Juliet Martinez rolled to center stage. She expressed the gratitude and elegance commonly expected at a pageant, though this one was somewhat different.
The title of Miss Wheelchair Arizona is not based on appearances nor talent skits. The winner is someone who can represent the struggles of the disabled and connect them with the community.
Martinez said she was frozen with shock when her name was announced as the new Miss Wheelchair Arizona last month.
“It kind of took me a few minutes to realize what was going on,” she said. “They were piling on the flowers and the gifts and put the crown on me. I was posing for the pictures, but I was just kind of in shock.”
Martinez has been unable to walk since she was 8 because of a medical malpractice. She was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 5, and her doctors gave her an overdose of chemotherapy that rendered her disabled for life.
However, she said her disability has only made her stronger and has led to her current accomplishments.
“It’s made me appreciate life more,” Martinez said. “I’ve been able to challenge myself a lot, with traveling, and adapting myself to different situations, like learning how to drive and going to school, obviously. I think it’s helped me be a better person because … I understand that everyone has their own story and struggles.”
After hearing about the pageant, Martinez’s friend called her and encouraged her to participate in Miss Wheelchair Arizona. Although the interview process had already closed, the panel allowed Martinez to compete after meeting her.
The process included a formal application, a full day of back-to-back interviews and a two-minute presentation by each candidate.
Martinez said the presentation section was the most nerve-wracking, because she was worried about going over her time limit.
“I was super nervous about the speech part because I talk a lot,” she said. “I’m really passionate about what I talk about, so I felt it was really easy to go over time, so I had to really practice it.”
Despite her anxiety, she said the judges enjoyed her presentation, which had a universal message.
“I chose to talk about challenges, how we should challenge ourselves,” Martinez said. “My message could go to the able-bodied and the disabled, basically just that we’re the ones who saw our limits to what we can do, and that we can take these little challenges and make our lives better.”
Martinez will participate in the national Miss Wheelchair Arizona pageant in Longbeach, Calif., in August.
Even after this success, Martinez said she’s excited to complete other goals after graduation.
“I just want to get the job I love, which is business consulting … with marketing and branding, all that fun stuff to help local businesses here,” she said. “And personal goal: I really want to skydive this year.”
Since becoming disabled, Martinez designed and created a new design for wheelchair-accessible cars. She worked with the manufacturer to realize her idea, which she saw as an improvement from the traditional methods. She has also designed and created special workout equipment for the disabled, and she is able to ride a bike.
Jason Bronowitz, who teaches technology entrepreneurship, has worked with Martinez in her classes as her professor, her faculty mentor and her colleague at Changemaker Central.
He said she has a profound effect on others, and she often inspires those around her.
“She tells students about her challenges and traveling internationally,” he said. “She was on a beach, I believe somewhere in South America, and she paid someone to take her around in a wheelbarrow because her chair wouldn’t work in the sand. She doesn’t let the chair hold her back in any way.”
Bronowitz said he has confidence Martinez will accomplish all of her goals because of her determination to help others as well as her drive to pursue personal success.
“I think that in whatever she does, she has the drive to be successful,” he said. “Her passion for design and creating solutions will lead her to create products and services that change people’s lives for the better.”
Public administration graduate student Cassie Johnson was the friend who first called Martinez about Miss Wheelchair Arizona.
She and Martinez are both involved with Collegetown ASU, an on-campus club that discusses social diversity and societal issues. She said Martinez has shown her incredible perseverance in many situations, though one specific memory stuck out that best showed Martinez’s personality.
“One of the days in Collegetown, we had to break a piece of plywood in half, like kung-fu style, and we were all worried because we weren’t sure if she was going to be able to do it,” Johnson said. “It took a lot of force from your lower body. But (Martinez) said, ‘No, I want to try it,’ and she broke it on the first try. She had a big smile on her face when it happened.”
Johnson said Martinez is inspiring because of her drive and optimism.
“I think that the most important thing that people can take away from Juliet is that you can make the best of your life no matter what your situation is,” she said. “She’s done amazing things and been to amazing places, and she’s always been incredibly optimistic and happy and it radiates from her. … No matter what’s going on in your life, you can choose to be happy and make the best of your situation, the most of it.”
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