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Her turn to speak

Eileen O'Brien wants a doctoral degree. She wants to write a book. She wants to host a radio show.

"I really would like to be the next Dr. Phil, to tell you the truth," said O'Brien.

At 38, the newly crowned Ms. Wheelchair Florida has no plans to slow down. Born with cerebral palsy, O'Brien has spent her life in a wheelchair.

Earlier this month she took top honors in the pageant that downplays physical beauty in favor of public speaking skills and knowledge of disabilities issues.

O'Brien described her platform for the pageant as holistic, focusing on the importance of people as individuals.

As she was crowned the winner, O'Brien said, "It was like I was watching this happen outside me."

O'Brien was born in New Jersey and raised in Maryland. After earning a master's degree in counseling psychology from Bowie State University q, O'Brien moved to Florida to pursue a career.

She now directs Integrity Counseling Services of Tampa Bay Inc., a mental health counseling firm, out of a Carrollwood office.

But it's the everyday things like grocery shopping, using public restrooms and traveling in the rain that have turned O'Brien into a problem solver. She lives alone in a Northdale apartment. She uses HARTplus paratransit van service to get around, as well as a personal van that friends drive for her.

She finds obstacles everywhere. On a recent trip to a local library, computers were not spaced wide enough apart for O'Brien to use. Shopping for food also takes more breath.

"It's a challenge when you go to the grocery store and things are higher," said O'Brien. "You always have to ask for help."

Though O'Brien says there are many accessible places to go in Northdale, she says she also has encountered architectural barriers in the area. Obliterating those obstacles is something she hopes to work on during her time as Ms. Wheelchair Florida.

"It makes me more determined, makes me more focused, makes me appreciate small things," O'Brien said of her disability.

She plans to travel to the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in Virginia set for July 27 to Aug. 1, 2004; enroll in an online graduate program and visit every part of Florida.

The currently unattached (but looking) O'Brien still finds time to go to the movies, sing, write poetry, attend Northside Assembly of God church and indulge in Barnie's coffee.

"I have so much that I want to give," said O'Brien. "I know that it doesn't take a crown to do this, but it does give you a platform."

The O'Brien File

Full name: Eileen Anne Marie O'Brien

Age: 38

Ms. Wheelchair Florida duties: "To advocate for people with disabilities, to highlight the accomplishments of women with disabilities and to educate the able bodied community."

In CD player now: Amy Grant, Unguarded.

Favorite movie: When Harry Met Sally, "It shows how they really did become friends."

Favorite book: Little Women, "It talks about the bonding between women. It's beautiful."

Favorite place to shop: "I love to go to Burdines in (WestShore Plaza). They had the most beautiful gown (for the pageant)."

Ideal mate: "Someone with a positive attitude that shares my faith. It's important to have somebody who sees life the way that I do."

In five years: "I want to be a Ph.D, still in private practice. I will have written a book by then on mental health issues."

People assume: ". . . that I'm not as intelligent as I am because I'm in a wheelchair or that I'm helpless or maybe even that I have an attitude. They're uneasy about people in wheelchairs."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at 269-5303 or