Last Thanksgiving, when Nadia Ibrahim’s family suggested she enter the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland competition, she thought they were joking.

“I said there is no way I’m going to do this, but by the end of the conversation I said, well, I’m going to at least try and see what happens,” Ibrahim said.

On January 10, Ibrahim was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Maryland for 2016.

“What appeals to me … is that this is an opportunity to do direct advocacy and education,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim films a training video for Virgin America employees. (Courtesy photo)

The Ms. Wheelchair Maryland competition is based on both achievement and advocacy. The titleholder must articulate the needs and the accomplishments of wheelchair users to the general public, the business community and the legislature.

Family values

For Ibrahim, a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, advocacy is practically second nature. It runs in her family.

“My parents, brother and sister are socially active and are involved in their communities,” Ibrahim said. “This is one of the values that my parents instilled in us, growing up.”

Raised in Indiana, Ibrahim is the daughter of immigrants from Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. She was born with cerebral palsy, but, she said, her parents held her to the same standards as her siblings.

Before she competes for the nationwide Ms. Wheelchair USA title in August, Ibrahim will travel throughout Maryland to advocate for personal assistance services, transportation and housing for people with disabilities.

Middle East hope

Ibrahim, who holds two master’s degrees, traveled to the Middle East in 2010 with her family and experienced the challenges that face people with disabilities in the region. And she seized the opportunity to talk to people about disability issues.

People “responded with respect, a lot of questions, and a willingness to learn,” Ibrahim recalled. She looks forward to connecting more deeply with regional disability advocates and humanitarian groups in the region.

“I hope to get the word out that a lot of children and adults with disabilities in the Middle East can be productive members of their communities if given the opportunity,” she said.

After Ms. Wheelchair Maryland

Ibrahim’s advocacy work will continue beyond her term as Ms. Wheelchair Maryland. She’s currently president of the Virgin America airline’s Disability Advisory Committee (which provides guidance on travel accommodations for people with disabilities) and volunteers with Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides service dogs for people with disabilities.

At home or on the go, Cooper is a great companion for Ibrahim. (© Jonalee Earles Photography)

Service dogs can open the world to persons with disabilities. They’ve long been part of Ibrahim’s life. Her current dog, Cooper, retrieves objects and opens doors for her.

“Many times people may be uncomfortable or fearful of someone with a disability, so my first service dog was a huge impetus for me coming out of my shell and being more outspoken about my needs and the needs of others with disabilities,” she said.

Ibrahim is one of thousands of disability rights advocates who work with governmental and nongovernmental organizations throughout the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of many laws that removed barriers and empowered people with all forms of disabilities to participate fully in society.