At first impression, Dara Branford exudes poise, humility, and a disarming authenticity that immediately puts you at ease. Even with the blue sash draped across her body and sparkling tiara upon her head, this dynamic 22-year old gets right to the reality of being 2019’s Miss Wheelchair DC.
“For me, being Miss Wheelchair DC is a way to be more social and comfortable with the position that I’m in. I want to show other people that there are people like me, that are in a wheelchair, that are female, that are struggling – and not struggling – on a day-to-day basis.”
Born and raised in Petworth, Dara learned about the Miss Wheelchair DC pageant from a friend who convinced her to go for it. The pageant consisted of two days of interviews, focusing on the contestant’s views on issues like employment within the disability community, and thoughts on accessibility. Contestants were asked about their role models (“My mom. She’s so strong.”) and even about their thoughts on dating.
For Dara, just getting to participate in the pageant was a community effort. Her neighbors and friends came together to spread flyers, participate in Facebook campaigns and raise the money she needed to participate. “After I won, everyone on my block came to the house. It was nice to know I had that feeling of security from people who were so close to me – and people who I didn’t even know. I was so grateful.”
Dara’s platform started as a push for more visibility on social media and within DC. She wanted to show herself as a regular person, who is working on herself, like anyone else. “This is who I am. This is what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I’m working on myself and I’m working on it with you.”
Over time, Dara’s platform has expanded based on her own experiences with depression and stress. Since becoming wheelchair-bound 4 years ago, Dara struggled with depression, especially during the winter months when friends were enjoying time outside and she felt trapped indoors. Her stress levels affected her on a physical level, something she hadn’t thought about before. “I never knew how badly stress could affect you physically, even though it’s a mental thing. And I’m living proof of it. That’s what I really want to show and talk to people about. Depression, stress, and anxiety can take a toll on you physically.”
For Dara, the stress and physical issues she’s experiencing have meant that she will miss the upcoming Miss Wheelchair America pageant in June. Although she won’t be able to compete, she is cheering for Miss Wheelchair Maryland, Wanda Hawkins-Barber, who she has become close to. Another perk of the pageant experience for Dara has been the friendships that she’s made with people like Wanda. “After you do the pageant you kind of form this sisterhood, this bond with everybody, and we all try to make sure we keep in contact with each other.”
Dara plans to continue spreading awareness around DC. She is the first person to be crowned in DC in 5 years, so she hopes that the momentum continues. She wears her sash when she travels around the city, hoping to catch someone’s interest and start a conversation. She’s been surprised at how few people know about the pageant and hopes to get more people interested and curious. For Dara, the reactions that she gets from wearing her sash vary. Some people are curious, some are confused, and some express pity.
Dara hopes that people replace their assumptions about her and others in wheelchairs with genuine curiosity and consideration. “I would tell people to be more open minded. I want people to be considerate. Think about what you say and what you do and really treat people who are different than you the same way. If you want people to accept you, you need to be able to accept others as well, no matter what their disability it. It doesn’t even have to be about disability. It could be race, religion, anything. If you’re open-minded about stuff like that, be open minded about physical and mental appearance too. We’re still normal. We’re still regular people. We might be a tad bit different because we function with different issues. But be open-minded. Don’t put us in a box and label us.”
Dara certainly is not boxing herself in. Having never traveled beyond the DMV, Dara has been teaching herself Korean and Japanese, with the plan to one day travel internationally. Her dreams are big, and she continues to work on herself and gain the confidence to achieve them. The mantra she’s posted on her wall at home is a battle cry for anyone who has ever felt stuck: “Get up – and get out!”
If you would like to help Dara spread her positive platform and message, you can contact her through her Facebook page.