'When you fight for justice, you face challenges'

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

Jacqueline Bettis is only 25, but she has spent her life overcoming obstacles that might have sunk a lesser person.

And she’s nowhere near through.

Bettis, a 2008 graduate of the University of Central Arkansas, was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Arkansas in 2009. She has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition in which oxygen is cut off from the brain before, during or after birth, resulting in a stroke. She is a spastic quadriplegic.

She started the master’s program in rehabilitation counseling at the University of Arkansas this spring.

But she is already wise.

“Life isn’t always easy, but you’ve got to roll with the punches,” she said. “When we fight for justice, we face challenges. Challenges lead to perseverance, and perseverance brings forth change.”

Bettis grew up in Little Rock, a daughter of Wendy Bettis and Victor Bettis. She has an older sister, Megan, and a younger brother, Evan. 

She thanks her parents for raising her in an unconventional way.

“People still stare in wonder, and I let them and then I share my story,” she said.

Despite her disability, she sang at Carnegie Hall in New York City when she was 10 with the Rockefeller Elementary show choir as part of the national children’s choir. She graduated from Little Rock Hall.

Along the way, she faced her share of challenges, including being a “token” student.

“But when you fight for justice, you face challenges,” she said.

At UCA, she majored in journalism but changed to rehab counseling after a year.

“I love to write and learn about people, places and things, so I thought journalism was a great career choice,” she said. “But I realized that journalism was a better hobby versus a career choice mainly because of the physical demands of the job, especially travel. I wanted something more practical and hands-on where I could truly focus on helping others and impacting lives.”

Crystal Hill, UCA’s director of Disability Support, remembers Bettis as an exceptional student with both a talent and a passion for leadership.

“She served the UCA and Conway communities as a mentor to young people considering college,” Hill said. “Jacqueline worked tirelessly to provide students with disabilities the knowledge and skill-set needed to successfully transition to post-secondary education. She also motivated her peers with disabilities to become better self-advocates.”

Hill said Bettis helped make UCA a more accessible campus by forming partnerships between students and administrators, “facilitating open and honest dialog about disability-related issues that required immediate action.”

“UCA is a better place because of Jacqueline’s activism and leadership,” Hill said. “Jacqueline’s accomplishments as a UCA student serve as examples of how one person can truly make a positive difference.”

After graduation, Bettis volunteered at the I Can! Dance class, which, according to its Facebook page, exposes special needs children to the art of dance in Arkansas. Julie Mayberry, former Channel 7 news anchor, is the director.

“She created a place for all children to dance because of her daughter’s passion to dance in spite of her ‘differences,’” Bettis said, referring to Mayberry’s daughter, Katie, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair for mobility. “I thanked her for making such a beautiful vision of unity come to life and told her my career aspirations and ambitions.”

Mayberry said Bettis often led end-of-class devotionals.

“What an example she set for these young children as she shared her heart with them,” she said. “It’s one thing for me to tell these special needs children that they ‘can’ do something. It’s more convincing when Jacqueline says it. She becomes a role model instead of someone who is just giving a pep talk.”

Mayberry referred Bettis to the Ms. Wheelchair Arkansas coordinator, who encouraged her to participate in the pageant.

According to its Facebook page, Ms. Wheelchair Arkansas is a non-profit organization created for women between 21-60 who use a wheelchair for daily mobility. Its pageant winner represents all Arkansans with visible and non-visible disabilities. A panel of judges selects the winner through a series of interviews. Judging criteria include self-perception, self-projection, communication skills and accomplishments for others as well as herself since the onset of her disability. Marital status is not a consideration.

Its mission is “to provide an opportunity of achievement for women who utilize wheelchairs for mobility to successfully educate and advocate for persons with disabilities.”

Bettis was crowned Feb. 7, 2009. Her platform was,
“I am ABLE to Abide By Life’s Endeavors.”

“We all face life’s challenges,” she said. “Some are the same and some are different. Life isn’t about the challenges we face, it’s how we choose to face life challenges that truly marks an imprint on who we are as people and truly makes a difference in the lives of others.”

During her reign, she appeared in a national documentary film, “Defining Beauty,” and spoke in nursing homes, elementary schools, churches and on college campuses to advocate for equality, justice and unity for everyone, including people with disabilities.

She also competed in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.

After her reign, she worked as chapter coordinator for Arkansas People First in Springdale, which led to her graduate study.

“My first and only boss so far, Megan Dunaway of Fayetteville, believed in giving me a chance to achieve my potential in the workforce as much as I believed in my own potential,” Bettis said. “She was finishing her rehab counseling degree at the U of A and told me about her experience. Then I became interested and decided to pursue the degree, too.”

After graduation, she wants to work to advocate for inclusion and independence in the workplaces and in the community.

“I may work for the state or in the nonprofit sector for a while, and then I may try to run for Arkansas Senate,” she said.

Obviously, the 501 hasn’t heard the last of her.

“To my friends, family and educators, thanks for your constant reminder that life is truly what you make of it,” she said. “Achieve, believe, succeed.”