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A Crowning Moment

GW students, long known for their international outlook and political savvy, seem to be developing a penchant for pageants. In 2001, GW alumni took top honors in both the Miss D.C. and Ms. Wheelchair D.C. competitions. Liane Angus, BS ’99, was crowned Miss D.C. 2001 and went on to place second in the Miss U.S.A. pageant this past March. In the first-ever Ms. Wheelchair competition in the District of Columbia, Djuna Ilene Parmley, BA ’95, emerged victorious.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” says Parmley, a 28-year old dynamo who was born four months prematurely with spastic cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. Parmley’s inspirational story captured attention long before the pageant victory. At a young age, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native developed a voracious appetite for reading, propelling her through middle school in just two years. Entering GW as a 16-year old freshman, Parmley quickly learned how to advocate for herself. “I guess you could call GW my training ground into advocacy,” she says. “It was really my first foray into being treated not so much as a person with a disability, but simply as a person. I felt empowered.”

Djuna Parmley, BA ’95, was crowned Ms. Wheelchair D.C.

Surprisingly, Parmley never set out to enter the Ms. Wheelchair D.C. competition. “I was at a Christmas party, and a friend of mine who was involved with the Ms. Wheelchair Maryland event suggested that I apply for Ms. Wheelchair D.C.,” she says. “Apparently, I was looking good that evening, or perhaps he just wanted to gas up my ego. He passed along my name and phone number to the coordinator of the competition, who immediately called me. I guess you can call it a happy accident.”

Noting that she’s generally not a spotlight stealer, Parmley never dreamed that she would actually win. “I had decided halfway through the competition, after meeting the other contestants, that I didn’t have a chance,” she says. “When they announced that I was the winner, I was absolutely stunned and extremely humbled.”

The most nerve-wracking part of the day, she says, was “the dreaded fish bowl question.” She can still feel the intense heat of the spotlight, as she recalls her moment on stage “with everyone you know staring at you to say something remotely intelligent. No pressure at all!”

As Ms. Wheelchair D.C. 2001, Parmley serves as a role model to empower people with disabilities, spending many hours each month sharing her advocacy expertise with Washington’s disabled community. “I am frequently invited to speak about disability-related issues at schools, businesses, and civic and religious organizations around the city, and work to drum up public support for the Ms. Wheelchair D.C. and America programs,” she says.

Parmley went on to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant in Denver this past summer, where she did not place, but had a fabulous time. “It was just phenomenal to meet all those amazing, strong women and to be numbered among them!” she says.

Once she turns the baton over to Ms. Wheelchair D.C. 2002 on February 24, Parmley will still have a very full plate. She works 30 hours weekly as a peer counselor at the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia, advocating for others with disabilities to live independently, and is a third year law student at George Mason University’s night program. “Sleep has become a thing that I used to do a long time ago,” she says.

Once she earns her law degree, she plans to continue to help people with disabilities on a pro bono basis. “I want to continue my advocacy work, because I find it so rewarding,” she says. “People with disabilities have the right to an equal playing field, and I want to do everything that I can to help empower others.”

Parmley strongly encourages women with disabilities to enter future Ms. Wheelchair D.C. competitions. (Full details are available by e-mailing “Ms. Wheelchair D.C. has given me so many wonderful opportunities to do things that I never would have,” she says. “It’s truly been an eye-opening, informative, rollercoaster ride.”

—Jamie L. Freedman

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