A Pioneer In Deed: A Former Miss Teen of Washington Shows That a Disability Need Not Be a Barrier

Sherry Stripling

The following article appeared in the July 31, 1994, issue of The Seattle Times.

In the pink and fluffy confines of Sungeeta Jain's bedroom, her mother flips through a National Enquirer to show that her daughter is not the only regular person the supermarket tabloid has featured.

"Here," she says, "and here."

Sushma Jain has been defending the magazine since a store clerk questioned why she was buying 20 copies. "It has an article about my daughter in it." To which the clerk replied, "Does she have two heads?"

No, she doesn't have two heads, although the one she has may someday grace fashion magazines and has so far earned her valedictorian honors at Ingraham High School and a multitude of scholarships to the University of Washington.

Blessed with a gift

What Sungeeta Jain has is a gift. She's the kind of pioneer who blazes trails so gracefully that people immediately recognize their own blinders. The response is not: "Wow, I hadn't thought of anybody like her in that role." Instead, it's: "What took us so long!"

When the judges chose Sungeeta, now 18, as Miss Teen of Washington a year ago, they weighed intently the obstacles she would face trying to make public appearances in a wheelchair. But they were swept away by the brightness of her personality, and they knew that judges at this week's Miss Teen of America contest in Illinois would be impressed by her academic record, poise and community achievements.

As much as they struggled with their decision, the local judges were still surprised to find they were the first to make it. According to officials at the Miss Teen headquarters, this is the first time the winner of any pageant of note in the country has used a wheelchair.

"I really think she's going to do well at the national contest," said Karen Reed, who was a judge at last year's Miss Teen of Washington contest. "When she came into the interview room, she radiated a personality that I hadn't seen in any of the other girls."

Perhaps the judges would have felt more comfortable had they lifted the bottom of her sari when she came out onstage in her wheelchair for the formal-wear part of the contest. She appeared confident and calm, but in reality she was hiding her tennis shoes under her skirt. Contestants are allowed only two minutes to change out of shorts from the group dance segment. Sungeeta had to wing it - quickly.

And then there's her imagination and persistence.

Participants in the national contest must represent an achiever from their state. Sungeeta decided she wants to tell about Harry Brown, a Tacoma candy maker who helped found Brown and Haley, makers of Almond Roca. She asked the company to make her a big gold Almond Roca box that would engulf her wheelchair.

Are you sure, asked company representatives, wondering if Sungeeta could handle it if the audience laughed or was offended by the sight. At last they decided that she had the dignity and smile to pull it off.

"Everyone has been very supportive," said Sungeeta.

A family of achievers

Sungeeta comes from a long line of achievers. Her mother's family includes a number of doctors. Her mother made the transition from growing up with servants to becoming an accomplished cook and seamstress after coming here from India 25 years ago. She has made most of Sungeeta's formal wear for contests and appearances.

Sungeeta's father, Sahib Jain, is a civil engineer. He's been very good, said Sungeeta, at knowing when to step back and let Sungeeta help herself. Her dad worked with all the kids in math after their mother worked with them on reading.

"My dad would have the younger kids do the math that my older sister was learning, so we were doing algebra in the third or fourth grade," said Sungeeta, who graduated from high school with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.

The lessons paid off. Sungeeta's oldest sister, Anu, 24, became and engineer. Middle sister Sapna, 20, is studying chemical engineering and pre-medicine. Sapna is the reigning Miss India of Washington, a position once held by Anu.

Sungeeta, who carpools with Sapna, will be in her second year in electrical engineering at the UW this fall. She has plans to follow up her four-year degree in elementary education. Meanwhile, she finds time for modeling classes and choreographs traditional Indian dances.

Sungeeta was 10 and had just started learning to dance when she lost the use of her legs in a car accident on rainy night as she was returning home from Expo '86 in Vancouver, B.C. She was asleep at the time of the crash and today remembers it like a bad dream.

Her early fears that her life would be greatly limited have not come true.

Though at times it has its frustrations: getting to her building on campus to find the elevator broken, or traveling to places that are not yet wheelchair accessible, such as her family's second home in India.

But on the whole she pursues almost every opportunity that comes along.

"I work around the obstacles," said Sungeeta, who rides a new elevator to her second-story bedroom, which is populated by dozens of Barbies and other dolls.

It's here that she writes her short stories and poems and keeps current with an international set of pen pals. And it's here where she puts up with the antics of her little brother, who likes to squeeze her baby dolls until they squeal.

Where one of this bunch goes, the rest are almost certain to follow, including Salil Dev, 10, who serves as official photographer for his sisters.

And so it was that on a hot day at Marysville-Pilchuck High School this June, the Jains were lined up in the second row with video and still cameras as Sungeeta, now a confident veteran, led the 1994 Miss Teen of Washington hopefuls through their paces.

"Hi! I'm from the little town of Prosser. It may be small but it's full of heart."

"Hi. I'm from Brewster, where they grow the sweetest apples in the state!"

"Hi! I'm a 13-year-old from Lynnwood..."

Achievement is the focus

If ever this contest caused feminist heads to shake, it has today left behind most vestiges of being a 1950s-style beauty contest. The contestants had no common shape or racial makeup, but they did share long lists of achievements.

School officers. Basketball stars. There was a girl who spent her off hours building houses for the homeless and another who led a Girl Scout program on how to defend against date and acquaintance rape.

One single father read a letter about how he failed at marriage and could only find work that took him out of town 200 days a year.. Yet here was his daughter succeeding as a school leader while holding down two after-school jobs.

"You're going to lead you generation, and I'll sleep soundly knowing it," the father said.

This year's winner, Melissa Krogh of Cheney, gave a comprehensive answer to the finalists' unexpected question of "Will the North American Free Trade Agreement benefit the United States?" She will represent Washington in next year's national contest.

The state winner and first runner-up make their own schedule of community involvement and appearances, which, in Sungeeta's case, has been a textbook example of how society is broadened by drawing from a larger pool.

Kids felt comfortable enough around her in her many school appearances to at last satisfy their curiosity about people in wheelchairs.

"They asked me, 'Is it hard?' 'Is it easy?' 'How do I get around?' 'Do I wear the same clothes everyday?'" said Sungeeta.

She visited one school for "Celebrate Your Differences week" and spoke regularly to classes through a "Think First!" safety program that encourages kids to wear seatbelts and helmets and to check the water before diving in.

She was in the March of Dimes and SKIFORALL Foundation walkathons and was a volunteer for the Cystic Fibrosis Walk and the Special Olympics. She visited kids at Children's Hospital and Medical Center.

"That's what I liked most about it," she said, "meeting with lots of different people."

Sungeeta was a windfall for groups trying to change the public's perception, said Dollie Armstrong, director of development and public relations for SKIFORALL, which provides adaptive equipment so people with disabilities can ski, kayak, bicycle, etc.

'Very capable'

It's affirming for people with disabilities to have someone from within their ranks succeed, said Armstrong, but it's even more enlightening for the public to see that with the barriers removed people with disabilities are "very able, very capable."

The prospect of those barriers loomed large for the judges, but Sungeeta, as usual, found a way around them.

"People are really very open and accepting of people's differences, especially here in Washington," said Sungeeta. "I haven't had that many things that I can't do."