|For Mariah Kilbourne ’10, true beauty isn’t about the heads you turn—it’s about the hearts and lives you touch. As Ms. Wheelchair America 2013, she travels the nation as an advocate and leader for people with disabilities. Born three months premature, cerebral palsy never discouraged her ambition and determination. After being crowned Ms. Wheelchair Texas in March 2012 and receiving the national title the following August, Mariah said the honor has been a most incredible opportunity.
“I’m grateful that I can spread my platform and message by encouraging people with disabilities to be active within their communities,” she said. “I like to meet with city officials and local business owners and talk about how people with disabilities can be inclined for inclusion. I even met with legislators in Austin as part of the Texas Independent Living Council.”
So far, her travels have taken her to South Dakota, Tennesee, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, and Arkansas. Not only did she tour Mount Rushmore, Mariah was part of Ski For Light—an adaptive ski program for blind and visually or mobility impaired adults. In Ohio, she and other disability advocates discussed how perspective presidential candidates would represent their group at the National Presidential Forum on Disabilities. In March 2012, Mariah met nine-year-old Lana Little who currently serves as Little Miss Wheelchair Texas and advocates for all children with disabilities. Their relationship has grown into what Mariah describes more as sisterhood. This past year, the two even went to Walt Disney World together for the 5K A-T Cure Team marathon weekend. Lana’s A-T, a rare genetic disease that attacks children, causing progressive loss of muscle control, immune system problems and a high rate of cancer, solidified Mariah’s desire to champion the rights of disabled children.
“I love speaking with children and having them open up to me about their own conditions,” she said. “Lana and I have become very close and remain in contact. I want to be a role model for kids with disabilities and show them that life is truly about embracing all parts of yourself.”
Her upcoming trip to Hawaii will focus on the issue of international disability rights, how people with disabilities are perceived globally and what everyone can do to help.
When she’s not appearing at events, Mariah works for the city of Seguin, Texas in the Economic Development and Main Street Program offices. With four months left as the reigning Ms. Wheelchair America, Mariah plans on being a spokesperson for people with disabilities long after her crown is passed on.
“The current path I’m on is where I want to remain,” she said. “I enjoy sharing my story and educating others about people with disabilities. The people within the Ms. Wheelchair Texas and America communities have become like family to me. During the competition, I was asked if I had the chance to take back my disability would I do it. I said no. My disability has had such an impact on my life and given me strength and determination. I wouldn’t change a thing and I want others with disabilities to feel that way too.”
On the path to advocacy
While at TLU, Mariah worked with the Student Government Association to install three ramps on campus and wrote the manual, “Independent Lives of Purpose” for the disabilities services department. The manual provides guidance and transition assistance for students with disabilities after they graduate. It includes chapters on housing, transportation, employment and self-care and is still available to current TLU students. Mariah also continues to share the manual with others during her travels.