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Yes We Can

Alumna Santina Muha—winner of the Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey pageant and star in a new documentary—is an ardent advocate for casting people with “disabilities” in the light of what is possible, not what can’t be done.

 

Santina Muha winner of the 2009 Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey
Santina Muha was the winner of the 2009 Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey title, which honors “advocacy, achievement, communication, and presentation.” Photography by Nick Romanenko

Santina Muha has a bone to pick with Glee. It’s not that she doesn’t watch the Fox network show, or enjoy it, or applaud the producers’ decision to create a character in a wheelchair. It’s just that the actor who plays that character doesn’t have a disability in real life, and that rankles Muha DC’06. “There are so many actors out there who really use wheelchairs and who are struggling to get parts,” she says. “It’s frustrating when one of those rare roles is given away to an actor who can walk.”

As someone with a passion for the limelight (“I’m most alive when a camera is on me,” she admits) and a young woman who’s spent 23 of her 28 years in a wheelchair, Muha (pronounced “MEW-ha”) brings a special, personal perspective to the subject. Since graduating from Rutgers in 2006, she’s put her communication degree to work as an advocate for people with disabilities, first as a writer and communications director for the nonprofit National Spinal Cord Injury Association and then as an ambassador for the Abilities Expo, a convention promoting independence for the disabled. Today, she’s busy on the public speaking circuit, telling her story to audiences that range from rehabilitative specialists to elementary and high school students.

It’s a story that she was initially reluctant to share—not because she was uncomfortable talking about herself, but because she didn’t want to be identified primarily as someone with a disability. In fact, in most ways hers is the typical life of a single woman in her 20s. She works, has her own place, takes care of her dog, goes clubbing with friends, hangs out at the beach during the summer. That her life is also extraordinary has less to do with the wheelchair than with her lifelong ambition to have a career in front of the camera. “I always wanted to walk the red carpet,” she says, an ambition that propelled her, in 2009, to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey pageant, which she won. Muha is physically arresting, with high cheekbones and startling amber eyes, but beauty isn’t a factor in the competition, which instead honors “advocacy, achievement, communication, and presentation.”

After winning the state title, Muha progressed to the national pageant in 2010, where she found herself in front of a new camera, this one in the hands of director Alexis Ostrander. Ostrander’s film, Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America, documents the competition, focusing not on the wheelchairs, but on the unique individuals who inhabit them. Inspired by the director’s sister-in-law Leslie, a former Ms. Wheel­chair Georgia, the film won Best Documentary at the Staten Island Film Festival and the Audience Award for Documentary Film at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Muha similarly downplays disabilities when she enters lecture halls and school auditoriums. Her emphasis as a public speaker, she says, is always on “what I can do, not what I can’t do.” So she may tell her audience, for instance, that she lost the use of her legs in a car crash when she was 5 years old, but she’ll also tell them that she was a cheerleader in high school and social chair of her sorority, Sigma Delta Tau, at Rutgers, that she lived on campus as a student, and that after college she interviewed celebrities as a writer for popular teen magazines like Tiger Beat and BOP. “I tell them all of these things,” she says, “and then they think, ‘If she can do it in that wheelchair, I can definitely do it.’” She fields questions from the kids—“How can you dance?”—with equanimity and humor (“What? You guys can’t dance sitting in your chairs?”), and it’s clear that she’s making an impression on her audience. “I get letters from them afterward saying things like, ‘I always wanted to be on television but didn’t think I could, but now I think I can because you did it,’” she says.

Her ultimate goal as a speaker is to change the way we think about disability—which is why children are her favorite audience. “You may change an adult’s mind about things for a day or a week,” she says, “but when you speak to children in K through 12, espe­cially the younger kids, they’ll have a different perspective on disability from that day on.” Behind all of this—the advocacy, the public speaking, the time spent in front of the camera—is Muha’s goal to “mainstream disability in the media.” She explains: “We take all of these cues from movies and tele­vision and pop culture in general, and if the only time you show disability is in a show that’s about disability, you’re just going to keep getting the same audience over and over, and those are the people who already know about it.” 

Muha’s passion on this subject is more than political. As a child, she says, she wanted to be “an actress, a model, Oprah,” and she still has hopes of succeeding at all three; in 10 years, she’d like to have her own talk show and envisions a day when disabled characters—optimally, played by disabled actors—will be commonplace in movies and on TV, and when the image of a newscaster or talk show host in a wheelchair won’t raise eyebrows. “I hope I have some part in making it happen,” she says. Given her energy, forward focus, and a natural ability to overcome obstacles and get things moving, that seems almost guaranteed. •                       

— Leslie Garisto Pfaff