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Aiming to set a good example


Julie Hope Dennis, 28, hopes a victory in the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland competition Sunday would give her the chance to make her life a testimonial for other handicapped people.

Eleven years ago, a drug addict severely beat Ms. Dennis and left her for dead in a clump of woods near Harundale Mall. She was a Glen Burnie schoolgirl at the time, returning home after buying prom shoes. That attack put her in a wheelchair.

Sunday's competition will be the third for Ms. Dennis, who will be joined by 11 other women at Florian Hall in Bowie.

The Ms. Wheelchair Maryland contest started in 1973 and is modeled after a national program that Dr. Phillip K. Wood established in Ohio in 1972. Dr. Wood, whose daughter was handicapped, believed that people with disabilities were excluded from society's mainstream. He wanted a way for them to display their strengths, abilities and accomplishments.

In Ms. Dennis' case, this has meant proving wrong the people who said she would be unable to talk after her beating. In May, she graduated a year early from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., with a degree in English and politics. The college has a mix of handicapped students and those who are not disabled.

She is looking for work as a paralegal and hopes to save money to attend law school. But she has more pressing concerns.

"All Julie's main interest now is getting people to understand that [the handicapped are] human beings, too, and they have rights like they do," said ShaRon J. Dennis, 50, as she stood by her daughter's side. Mrs. Dennis often acts as an interpreter for her daughter, whose spoken words are hard to understand.

The winner of the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland contest will travel in the state educating the public about disability issues. The winner also will get an all-expense-paid trip to the national competition next year in Atlanta, Ga.

Karen L. Johnsen, 39, the current Ms. Wheelchair Maryland, spent her reign visiting schools to teach children about disabled people. The schools and children are "where attitudes change and impressions are made," said Mrs. Johnsen, who has muscular dystrophy.

The Bowie resident won the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland title Oct. 9, 1993. The reign usually is for one year, but last year the nonprofit organization didn't have enough money to hold the contest. So Mrs. Johnsen kept the title and worked with a committee to save the program.

"I believed in what it stood for, and so it turned out it was up to me to let it sink or swim, and I wanted it to swim," she said.

During the daylong competition, women will be judged on their achievements, communication skills and how well they interact with others. Organizers expect contestants from Baltimore, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George's counties to participate. The mayor of Bowie and others, including the current Ms. Wheelchair America titleholder, are expected to attend.

Several businesses have donated gifts and prizes, ranging from jewelry to trips to Ocean City. Mrs. Johnsen said the program could use more corporate sponsors.

For more information about the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland program, call (410) 721-0936.

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