Wilson County woman vying for Ms. Wheelchair USA crown seeks equal access for all

Posted 7/2/19

Brittany Hawley is determined to see that all people have equal access to education regardless of ability or cultural differences.

Hawley, 26, is the reigning Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina USA, a …

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Wilson County woman vying for Ms. Wheelchair USA crown seeks equal access for all

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Brittany Hawley is determined to see that all people have equal access to education regardless of ability or cultural differences.

Hawley, 26, is the reigning Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina USA, a designation she earned last September. In that role, she has traveled around the state for one year advocating for the disabled.

The 2012 Fike High School graduate is one of 10 finalists in the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition to be held in July 14-21 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

Hawley’s platform in the national competition is “Tassels without Barriers,” a campaign to incorporate universal design into educational settings.

Hawley, the daughter of Dennis and Sandy Hawley of Elm City, has reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome or CRPS/RSD.

As a teen, Hawley played softball and was a competitive gymnast.

“I woke up one morning and couldn’t move my hand, and then it triggered and spread all the way across my body,” Hawley said. “It’s why I am in a chair now.”

Determined, Hawley didn’t let the challenges of learning everything over again at four rehabilitation hospitals hold her back.

She graduated from Campbell University with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 2016 and earned her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, in 2018.

Hawley made national news when she and her service dog, Griffin, graduated from Clarkson, both picking up their degrees together.


It was Hawley’s experiences at two universities that helped develop her platform with Ms. Wheelchair USA, Tassels without Barriers.

“While I was in school for occupational therapist, we learned about universal design and universal design for learning,” Hawley said. “Universal design is a theory and a practice that creates a space that can be used by everyone with all ability types. It does not single out disabled people. It looks at cultural differences, race, age, gender, disability types, speech language types. It is to develop a place, a community that can be used by everyone regardless of what your abilities are.”

Hawley cited staircases where ramps are incorporated, entrances where people moving through have the choice of conventional, automatic or push-button doors, where classroom spaces have desks spaced so that people of all shapes and sizes and abilities can sit wherever they want, where lab tables aren’t all one height, but varying heights to accommodate use by people of various heights or if they are seated in a wheelchair.

“It gives you a variety of options that anyone can access,” Hawley said. “So that’s the whole thing with universal design is it is a place that can be used by everyone.”

Hawley said the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, goes a long way, but not the whole distance.

“ADA is a law that can be stigmatizing,” Hawley said. “If you notice, some ramps on a building can be on the back of the building, so you are entering through a whole different entrance.”

Hawley said everyone should be afforded the opportunity to go in the same entrance.

“Universal design looks at social norms and everybody being together and inclusive, so they are going to put a ramp at the same entrance as everybody else,” Hawley said. “You are going to be able to get in the same way. You are not going to be stigmatized. You are not going to stand alone because you have to use a different entrance.”

Hawley said universal design will take time to implement.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Hawley said. “It’s a process. So ADA is your golden principle. It just covers the basics. So with my platform, I show that access is more than accessing a building. When people see a ramp and they see you can get inside the building, they might think that that is all you need. Is it OK to be able to access a building but not be able to access anything inside the building? What’s the point of going in the building if you can’t do what you need to do in the building?”


“As the future Ms. Wheelchair USA, I want to be able to create a space where you can access everything you need,” Hawley said. “Access is more than just accessing a building. I want to create a space that can be used by everyone. It is not singling out if you are disabled.”

Hawley’s Tassels Without Barriers platform focuses on educational campuses.

“Education can help individuals learn and develop. People grow by what they hear and what they see in school, so in the educational setting, it helps you learn and develop into the person you want to be, into the job you want to go to. However, if your ability to move gets taken away, you still have the ability to fulfill your jobs or what you did in school,” Hawley said. “You still can earn a degree. You still can get the job of your dreams.”

Hawley will leave Wilson on July 12 and head the national Ms. Wheelchair USA competition.

“We meet with community members. We share our platform. We try inclusive sports. We compete. Friday is the individual interviews. They ask us questions about our platform, our application, national news that’s happening,” Hawley said. “Friday night, we share our platform. I have a speech that is three minutes long that kind of sums up what Tassels without Barriers means and why I am passionate about it. That Saturday you find out who the top five are. If you are in the top five, you will have to deliver a two-minute marketing speech on how you are going to promote your platform and then answer on-stage questions. Then you find out Saturday night who wins.”