Amazing Women of the Suncoast: Ashley Applequist

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SARASOTA - Every Monday we spotlight an amazing Suncoast woman based on your nominations. This week's amazing woman was nominated by Easter Seals Southwest Florida.

You don't have to be rich or famous to be honored as an amazing woman. You just have to make extraordinary accomplishments while overcoming great obstacles. Our amazing woman this week is Ashley Applequist. She is just back from the Ms. Wheelchair Florida Pageant that was held in St. Petersburg over the weekend, where she received rave reviews as she advocated for more rights and better treatment of those with disabilities.

The purpose of the pageant is to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman to advocate for Americans with disabilities. After a lifetime in a wheelchair, Ashley Applequist knows the subject well.

"I am 27 and I have spina bifida, and I come to Easter Seals 3 days a week," says Ashley.

It was the Easter Seals staff who encouraged her to enter the Ms. Wheelchair competition. "She spends her days in a wheelchair, but yet her cognitive abilities of thought and thought processing is very high," says Kameron Hodgens, Easter Seals VP of Programs and Services.

And intelligence is one thing they're looking for in the contest. Each contestant must present a platform and demonstrate their skills in speaking out for others with disabilities. "My platform is telling people that just because somebody is in a wheelchair, they can do things, and don't judge them by their disabilities," says Ashley.

Which is a very personal subject to Ashley. She says growing up, because of her physical disability, she was treated like she had a mental disability as well. That’s not true at all. "Ashley is really an incredible young lady who is full of so much potential. And when she came to Easter Seals 3 years ago, the staff recognized that she wasn't reaching her full potential," says Hodgens.

They encouraged her and she blossomed. "I'm working on my GED, because I was placed in special education going to school because they looked at my physical disability; they didn't look at my mentalityand they placed me in ESC classes. So I got a special diploma, which I want to go to college to be an ESC teacher, and I have to have a GED to get accepted into college."

And Ashley says she owes it all to Easter Seals. “Just know that where I’ve been, and coming here to Easter Seals has helped so much. I mean, I used to be depressed – really, really bad depressed. But coming here and seeing how much people love me makes me feel so good. I'm in school trying to get my GED if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be doing that."

In the Ms. Wheelchair Competition, the contestants must present themselves before the judges and large audiences. A donor made it possible for Ashley to have proper clothes.

Susannah Crite from Easter Seals took her shopping. "She was just thrilled. It was just a really magical day."

And now Ashley's determined to speak out for others with disabilities. "Let people know that just because I'm sitting down doesn't mean I can't change, or help change anything in the community where I live."

And the Ms. Wheelchair Florida competition is giving her confidence to do that.