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March 20, 2000 09:00am
Blind man judges Miss Alberta contest
Source: National Post
by: Charlie Gillis

(ALBERTA, CANADA) -- Organizers of the Miss Alberta pageant may have found a fool-proof means of silencing skeptics who view such events as mere beauty contests: They've enlisted a blind man to judge the competition.

Harold Grace, a 51-year-old from Edmonton, will sit on a panel of judges who will assess the wit, charm, intelligence and talent of young women vying for the titles of Miss Alberta and Miss Teen Alberta, which have survived despite the cancellation of the Miss Canada pageant eight years ago.

However, Mr. Grace will not be able to see the contestants, as he has been completely blind for 15 years. He relies on Braille, a voice activated computer and the help of his wife to handle daily chores -- though he notes that his other senses have sharpened since he lost his sight.

"When I shake people's hands, I can gauge such things as warmth and strength of character," he says. "I listen to their voices and how they respond to questions. If they're making it up, or if they're not genuine, I can always tell.

"That's how I'll judge them in this case."

The choice of Mr. Grace -- a charity worker who serves as director of development for the Edmonton office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind -- comes as pageants struggle to redefine themselves in a politically sensitive age.

Organizers of the Miss America pageant, the alpha and omega of beauty contests, made headlines last year by allowing contestants to wear bikinis during the swimsuit portion of their competition -- a desperate move critics attributed to the contest's plunging TV ratings.

The Miss Canada pageant atrophied throughout the 1980s amid loud criticism from feminist groups, dying only after CTV dumped it from its program list in 1992.

Local and regional contests such as the Miss Alberta pageant have tried to stress talent and smarts rather than appearance as the number of young women bent on donning ersatz tiaras dwindled through the 1990s. Yet even the most progressive pageants produce mysteriously few unglamorous winners.

Mr. Grace hopes his presence will help ensure the Miss Alberta panel will emphasize personality; he notes that successful contestants must perform well in an interview with the judges and on a written exam.

"When I was young, it was all about beauty, of course," he says. "But they've changed and I believe [making me a judge] will certainly go a long way to help their cause."

Mr. Grace met organizer Vicky Kujunkizic, a former contestant in the pageant, when the two served together on an organizing committee for a Lions Club event.

He admits to being taken aback when she asked him to serve as a judge.

And there was an inevitable bout of ribbing from male friends who learned of his new task .(One asked whether he would be "using Braille" to assess the young women.)

Mr. Grace brushes aside such humour, stressing the modern philosophy behind the pageant.

"I talked with the organizers about the beauty component and they said it didn't matter," he says. "They tell me beauty will not be a big part of it, and I believe them."

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