Wheels of Fortune

Written by Wynter Holden Category: People Issue: July 2014
Group Mid-Level
Character count 2500

Ms. Wheelchair Arizona advocates for the mobility-impaired.

Juliet Martinez has yet to encounter an obstacle she can’t overcome – and she isn’t about to let this gymnasium rock wall in Scottsdale be the first. She locks the wheels of her chair, secures herself into a harness and – with a little helpful butt-boost from a climbing guide – begins the vertical ascent. Her powerful biceps tighten as she crawls her way up the craggy surface. Sweat beads on her face, exposing a dark birthmark normally covered by makeup.

Martinez concedes just short of the summit, but is undeterred. “That was awesome,” she says. “I want to do it again!”

Diagnosed with cancer at age five and confined to a wheelchair three years later, Martinez has scaled walls both figurative and literal her entire life. “When you have a disability, people set limits on you,” the 24-year-old Santa Barbara native says. “I can do anything anyone else can do. I just might have to do it differently.” A professional social media consultant, Martinez will graduate from Arizona State University’s management of technology Masters program in August. She’s also a world traveler, having visited Australia, Great Britain, Argentina, Spain and France. As the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Arizona, she’ll travel to Long Beach, Calif. in August, to  compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.

Martinez advocates for improved wheelchair accessibility, but she’s also a believer in self-reliance and adaptation. For example, every day she maneuvers her chair up a large step, popping a wheelie to get into her home. She views the ritual as a reminder to face life’s challenges head-on. “I’ve never adapted any of my houses. However they come, that’s how I live in them,” she says. “I have to struggle with the step, but every time I come in the door, I remember what life is all about.”

In January 2014, that anecdote helped Martinez win Ms. Wheelchair Arizona, a state-sponsored qualifier for the national Ms. Wheelchair America competition. Founded in 1972, the pageant is more of an advocacy program than a traditional “beauty” contest. There are no swimsuits or talent portions – though Martinez half-jokingly says she was hoping to paint using her chair wheels for the latter. Applicants are judged on personality and eloquence, as well as comprehension of Americans with Disability Act (ADA) laws.

Ms. Wheelchair America program coordinators Terry and Karen Charlton were so impressed with Martinez, they allowed her to enter the state pageant after the application process had concluded. “Juliet isn’t phony. The judges would totally see through that. She is who she is, and she’s very comfortable with her disability,” Terry Charlton says.

Certain she wouldn’t win, Martinez waited until the last minute to tell her family about the pageant. When her name was announced, she was shocked. Her mother cried. “It took me a second to get it,” Martinez recalls. “They gave me flowers and put the crown on. I was shaking, and smiling so much that my lips went numb.” Now Martinez shares her story as part of her Ms. Wheelchair Arizona duties, with three to four weekly charity events on her calendar.

Juliet Martinez in her modified Honda Element. Martinez helped technicians design the wheelchair system.

Martinez was originally diagnosed with leukemia in 1995. She remembers enduring hours of chemotherapy, tubes delivering medicine to her bloodstream via a catheter under her skin, her tiny body swallowed up by throw pillows piled on an adult-size chair. Too young to understand she had more than a cold, she viewed her illness as an excuse to get toys. For a while she was healthy enough to attend classes and cheerleading practice, until a second round of chemo proved disastrous. “I started dragging my feet and I got super skinny. I couldn’t walk to school with my brother anymore,” Martinez says. Her bones became increasingly brittle. On December 27, 1998, Juliet stopped walking. Older brother Jaime Martinez, now 28, remembers that difficult year. “Juliet took a nap at our grandparents’ house and when she woke up, she couldn’t walk,” he says. “It was a difficult time for our family. As a child I could only grasp so much, but now that I’m a father, I understand exactly how my parents must have felt.”

It was later discovered that an overdose of life-saving chemotherapy caused Juliet’s condition. She was left with some feeling in her legs, but permanently unable to walk. The Martinez family later successfully sued the hospital for medical malpractice. Juliet won’t disclose the award amount, but says it was one of the largest malpractice settlements to date in California. During the six-month-long hearing process, Juliet testified and publicly forgave the doctor who caused her condition. “I wouldn’t change anything,” she says. “I’ve done so much and I think it’s partly because of what happened to me.” Still, she wishes it was easier for persons with disabilities to navigate public places. But unlike California, where ADA lawsuits run rampant, Martinez isn’t overly litigious in seeking handicap accessibility. “I would have a lawsuit as my last option. I [would] first approach the company managers face-to-face, and if that didn’t work I would get political support,” she says. “I have found this to be a better approach.”

Martinez has made increased accessibility part of her platform. In the past, she’s had to pay men to carry her across a beach and ask for a lift down flights of steps at the Plaza Versailles. She’s currently working with city officials to improve wheelchair access at East Valley playgrounds and spoke out in support of Arizona bill HB 2667 to remove negative terms such as “handicapped” from state law.   

The Ms. Wheelchair Arizona crown extends her influence. “It’s sort of like a superpower,” Martinez quips. “People find it harder to say no to me.” She hopes to win over the Ms. Wheelchair America judges. Terry Charlton is convinced that if Martinez wants another crown, she’ll get it. “She’s the whole package,”  Charlton says. “When I met her, she introduced herself and said ‘I love my life.’ How many other people can say that?”

Crowning Achievements
Non-traditional pageants such as Ms. Wheelchair Arizona offer recognition for underrepresented communities. Here are some other alternative pageants held in the Grand Canyon State:


Ms. Senior Arizona  
One of the few pageants to allow repeat entrants, Ms. Senior Arizona recognizes distinguished women age 60 and older. Judges look for strong character and inner beauty, in addition to poise and talent. msseniorarizona.com

Miss Gay Arizona America
A two-day competition for female impersonators, with 10 regional pageant winners competing in classic talent, evening gown and interview portions. The 2014 winner advances to the Miss Gay America pageant, October 8-12 in Nashville, Tenn. missgayarizonaamerica.com

Mrs. Arizona America
There’s no singing or dancing required at this beauty pageant for married women; presenters believe “being married is talent enough.” Victors represent Arizona in the televised Mrs. America competition. mrsarizonaamerica.com

Miss Indian Arizona
Scholarship competition open to tribal students ages 17-24. Contestants appear in traditional dress and demonstrate their understanding of Native American music, dance, storytelling and humor. missindianarizona.com