Maureen Pratt

The world of beauty pageants might seem glamorous to the outside observer. But Mary Breiner’s road to winning the title Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky 2018 began with ever-increasing pain and uncertainty about the future.

“I was in my early 30s,” said Breiner. “First, I had pain in my hips when I went to sleep. Slowly, it got worse, until I had it all the time. Over the next several years, I saw four or five different neurologists, but they kept saying, ‘We don’t see anything.’ They thought I was depressed. Some people just thought I wanted attention.”

“I’ve always prayed, even though I grew up in a family that didn’t go to church. So, I asked God, ‘Why is this going on?'” said Breiner, who joined the Catholic Church in 1981. “I told God, ‘I have this little boy to raise, a job, a husband. You need to fix this so I can go on with my life.'”

As her situation deteriorated, Breiner began to use a cane, then two canes, and then a walker. Finally, another neurologist delivered devastating news.

She said, “The lower discs in my spine were spontaneously fusing to one another, and my spinal column was narrowing, crushing the base of my spinal cord. The neurologist said that in five years, I’d be in a wheelchair. It’s 20 years since I started using the chair.”

With the chair, Breiner’s beloved activities changed, including participation in parish life. A lector, cantor and extraordinary minister of holy Communion before her mobility became so compromised, Breiner found new challenges just navigating the entry of the church.

“There was a ramp,” she said, “but it was too steep, there was no platform, and the door was too heavy for me to open.”

Once inside, Breiner had to sit in the back, and couldn’t see what was going on at the altar.

A newly arrived priest saw Breiner’s challenges. He ordered modifications to the ramp and door and removed a front pew so she and anyone else with mobility issues could worship with an unobstructed view.

Not everyone wanted physical changes done to the church, and some were uncomfortable with Breiner’s visible disability. But her faithful, steady presence helped educate everyone on the possibilities that come when persons with disabilities can fully participate.

“Enlightenment through advocacy,” said Breiner. “It’s important that people understand you’re not asking for special treatment. I want equal treatment. Now, I can cantor and lector (without taking the steps). I feel more a part of things, and people don’t even think of it.”

The support of her church community also helped Breiner to move ahead in the Ms. Wheelchair USA contest.

“An acquaintance who won Ms. Kentucky in 2015 said, ‘You need to run,'” said Breiner. “I said, ‘I’m 56 years old! I’m not exactly pageant material.'”

However, when Breiner learned that the competition is for women 21-60, and is focused on advocacy for others with disabilities, she applied and was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky 2018. But in order to go to the national competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she had to raise money.

“I talked about it with my church members,” said Breiner. “By the end of the day, I had more than enough to do it!”

Breiner did not win the national title, but she is not disappointed. She has embraced speaking at schools, community organizations and to people in government and other leadership roles.

She said, “I have received a gift. This is where I’m meant to be, to advocate for others with disabilities, I’m doing what God wants me to do. There’s beauty in disability. Even to see the beauty in those who help — it’s everywhere.”