Samantha Lebron knows it’s going to be a conversation starter.
The 33-year-old, wheelchair-bound New Tampa resident is, after all, wearing a crown and sash in public. It all comes with the territory when you are the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Florida.
“A couple days after I got crowned,” Samantha says, “I was actually asked about it and they asked me to sit with them at their table in a restaurant and tell them every detail. I thought, ‘That’s what I went into this for.’”
Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Inc., hosted the 47th annual “Be the Change…Be Empowered” Conference & Gala at the Rosen Centre in Orlando from Feb 27-March 1, and Lebron, who was born with cerebral palsy but has only been wheelchair-bound since 2018, was crowned this year’s recipient.
And, while many think Lebron’s title is more for the pageantry or because the winner scored the best with “talent” judges, nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the mission of Ms. Wheelchair Florida, Inc., is to provide an opportunity for wheelchair-bound women to educate and advocate for all individuals with disabilities. In essence, it now gives Lebron a platform to advocate for causes near to her heart.
Lebron entered the contest with just that goal in mind. She says that when she was on stage, the words flowed out perfectly, leading to her being crowned the winner and setting off a flurry of photos and interviews.
“And, it wasn’t about the glitz and glam for me,” she says. “It’s about my message and my platform being heard. I wanted to do this year right with my crown, and have the right ears listening to me, to really hit home what my platform will be.”
Lebron’s platform is to make transportation safer and more reliable for disabled individuals across the state since it is not a standardized practice throughout Florida. Each area, city or county has different methods, some better than others.
“And I was living it,” Lebron says. “Like a lot of other people in this county or many other places. I wanted to be a spokesperson to make this better, sure, not only for myself, but for others, as well.”
Lebron says she faced many difficulties while trying to find transportation to work.
HARTPlus Paratransit has a service that offers van transportation that will pick up and drop off people at their destinations, or takes them to an accessible bus stop. But, Samantha wasn’t within ¾ of a mile of the closest bus stop, and wasn’t eligible for the service. With the closest bus stop an 8-min car drive from her New Tampa apartment, she had to utilize Uber rides to the HART bus station on E. Fletcher Ave.
That led sometimes to waits of an hour for HARTPlus, which was then another hour-long ride to her previous job on E. Hillsborough Ave.
Those Uber rides were costing her $500-600 a month alone.
“There are so many opportunities out there for jobs for people in my position,” Lebron says, “but there are not enough options for transportation to those opportunities. This was something I felt very strongly about because…well, I was living it.”
As noted earlier, Lebron hasn’t always been wheelchair bound. Up until 2018, she relied on using a walker to move around, until she sustained a neck injury that was causing nerve issues. Her doctors recommended she start using a wheelchair part time, but the pain became too great. She was told one fall could render her a paraplegic, so she is now 100-percent chair-bound.
She does still attend physical therapy and has a healthcare provider with her most of the time. In fact, she also plans to add the importance of physical therapy to her advocacy campaign.
“People just don’t get enough of it (physical therapy),” she says.
Lebron has never let the wheelchair slow her down.
She was recently certified to be a Work Incentives Practitioner, which is a position that works with other disabled individuals, helping them get their benefits and compensation in the workforce.
She also in an ambassador and spokesperson for ABLE United, a volunteer with Best Buddies, just accepted an offer to be on the Board of Directors for Self Reliance, Inc. She also participates in wheelchair-adaptable sports like golf, tennis and kayaking.
She says that one of her goals is to be selected to the National Paralympic Table Tennis team.
Lebron also is ready to take on the duties that come with her title as Ms. Wheelchair Florida.
She has several events and speaking engagements already planned, and even if those are postponed by the coronavirus, she says she will make sure her message is heard, either by video conference, or other telecommunications or social media.
“(I will use) this position, which is an honor I am humbled to have, to talk to businesses and policymakers to break the barriers that exist in the disability community,” Lebron says. “There were and still are a lot of barriers. Yes, (the last two years) have been great for inclusion and awareness, but we still have a long way to go.”
For more info, visit www.mswheelchairfl.org.