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HOUSTON A unique beauty pageant is taking place in Houston this week.

We don t have a swimsuit competition and we don t have an evening gown competition, said a spokeswoman.

The contestants are judged on their message, not their measurements.

It s the 40th annual Miss Wheelchair America pageant, taking place this year in Houston at the Hyatt Regency downtown.

They are learning their voice. They are learning to advocate for themselves. They re learning their strengths, said Shelly Loose, President of Miss Wheelchair America, speaking about the 27 contestants.

Many of the contestants took their first plane rides to get to the pageant. One activity this week has been riding Houston s Metro trains, a first encounter with public transportation for some of the women.

The reigning queen is a Texas girl, Mariah Kilbourne, 25, from San Antonio. She frequently turns heads during her travels, she said.

Especially little girls, they re attracted to the crown and the sparkle and then you re able to start educating them at a young age what it s like to have a disability, Kilbourne said.

Real beauty is not measured by the number of heads you turn, but by the number of hearts you touch, said the founder of Miss Wheelchair Texas, Angela Wrigglesworth. She was Miss Wheelchair Texas in 2004.

Tomball resident Hailey Cornelius is this year s Miss Texas. She hopes to keep the national crown here in the Lone Star State.

I really don t know what my chances of winning are, she said.

Cornelius was disabled 12 years ago in a July 4th boating accident.

Took nine propeller swipes to the back, she said.

Cornelius said her message is: Look past the paralysis and into the women s personalities, which are typically upbeat.

A smile is an international language no matter what race, gender, country you come from, Cornelius said. Everyone speaks with one.

The new Miss Wheelchair America will be crowned Saturday night at the Hyatt, but all of the ladies are going to leave Houston as winners, organizers and contestants said.

For more information visit: mswheelchairamerica.org

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