Later this month, one Florida woman will make history as the first contestant with autism to take the stage at the Miss Florida pageant, which is part of the Miss America pageant system.
Rachel Barcellona, a junior at the University of South Florida, will compete alongside 34 other women on June 25 for the crown. Barcellona currently holds the title of Miss Manatee River.
“I want to use my voice to inspire hope to others,” Barcellona told CNN affiliate WFTS. “Awareness is okay, but we need acceptance.”
In the pageant she will advocate for her platform, “Ability Beyond Disability,” to show others that “autism doesn't hold me back.” Barcellona is also an advocate for autism awareness and is going to the White House with SafeMinds to lobby for important amendments to the proposed Autism CARES Act of 2019, which is the primary source of federal funding for autism research, services, training, and monitoring.
Barcellona, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has been competing in pageants on and off since the age of five. She also struggles with epilepsy, the neurological disorder dyspraxia, and the learning disorder dyscalculia, according to her story on the Dyspraxia Foundation USA website.
She’s incredibly vocal about experiences with autism and frequently talks about them on her social media accounts. In one Instagram post she recalled being a child who wasn’t invited on playdates, birthday parties, and was picked last on sporting teams, among other things.
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I was that child... It is my passion to continue helping make this world a better place for individuals with differing abilities! #inclusion #bekind #boldandbright #makeadifference #socialimpactstatement #abilitybeyonddisabilities #roadtomissfl #rooting4Rachel #missmanateeriver2019 #missflamerica #missfloridapageant #missamerica #roadtothecrown #missmanateeriver #missflorida #missfl #mao #missfloridaorganization #befearlessbeyou
“I was that child,” she wrote in the caption. “It is my passion to continue helping make this world a better place for individuals with differing abilities!”
Pageants have a reputation for being a bit outdated and only available to women who fit a certain image. While Barcellona doesn’t deny that the latter, in particular, is true, she told WFLA that it’s all about an individual finding a perfect fit. Similar to autism, she describes pageantry as a “spectrum.”
“You have to find the right ones for you,” she said. And just go from there because it can really, really make a girl more confident and empower her to be an amazing woman."