Bright, bubbly and blonde hair curled to perfection: it was easy for many to see how Nicole Kelly became Miss Iowa back in 2013. As she spoke into the microphone with precise enunciation, comfortable in front of a crowd, she was a clear pageantry pro. However, there was something different about Kelly. The sleeve of the long red dress she wore was rolled up to reveal a stump where her forearm should have been.
Born with only one hand, Kelly spent her entire life grappling with the label of “disabled,” one she felt never quite applied to her since she was still a fully functioning person. How could she be disabled, she asked herself, if she could do everything her older siblings and everyone else around her could?
In her small hometown of Keokuk, Iowa, where everyone knew each other by name, Kelly was treated the same as her able-bodied peers. This came as a shock when, after winning Miss Iowa, she saw her name plastered on national news sites along with the word “disabled.” This began a long journey for Kelly, from seeing herself as simply different from those around her to accepting and eventually becoming proud of having a disability, and the culture surrounding it.
For Ashley Brickley, MU Disability Center assistant director, Kelly’s journey and openness made her the perfect candidate to speak on Oct. 4, the fourth day of Celebrate Ability Week.
“When we were starting to look for speakers, I was really trying to find somebody who would provide that identity information and talk about disability in a positive light, since we don’t often hear that a lot,” Brickley said. “I had seen a couple of her vlogs she had been doing and people she had been interviewing in the disabled community, and really that was kind of a great message to bring. And so it was really awesome to have her come and share her story.”
Kelly began her speech with the disclaimer that this story was her own and she couldn’t speak for anyone else. Regardless, this story was one that resounded with members of the audience. Brickley said it was Kelly’s personal story, as opposed to simply stating facts, that allowed her to make this connection. This was especially seen with people with disabilities, such as with Ellie Stitzer, Unity Coalition president and wheelchair user. She found a sense of solidarity in Kelly’s willingness to talk about her own struggles.
“I feel like [Kelly] talked about a lot of issues that don’t get brought up a lot,” Stitzer said. “For example, she talked about disabled persons’ benefits from rejecting their ideas of a disabled person to becoming accepting of it and proud, even, of their status as a person with a disability. As a person who is disabled myself, I have had a similar experience in my life, and so I thought it was cool that she talked about it.”
After winning Miss Iowa five years ago, Kelly set out on a year-long tour to talk about an issue of her choice, as every state’s pageant winner does. Her topic? Disabilities. After visiting students in every year of school from kindergarten to 12th grade, she realized that people were not typically given an opportunity to ask questions about disabilities. Instead, it was regarded with a sense of discomfort, as Kelly said. This, she realized, had to change.
“So much of the word disability, I think, people associate with shame, and it’s not a shameful word at all,” Kelly said. “Disability is beautiful. Disability is strong. Disability is adaptable. Disability is powerful. It’s all of the positive words that people don’t associate with it. It’s just a matter of fixing, tweaking little things, little barriers, in the world around us in order to accommodate what people need in order to be helpful....We are the largest minority. There are a lot of us. So there certainly is a need for it.”
As Kelly mentioned in her speech, one in five people have some type of mental or physical disability. This statistic was what made Kelly’s speech and the topic of disabilities in general so important for Stitzer.
“Disability is a part of life,” Stitzer said. “...It’s very common. Most people are going to know someone [with a disability] if they don’t have one themselves, so it’s important to talk about ... Disability is just a part of what makes life diverse and interesting, and so it’s important to draw attention to those issues.”
Despite her experience with students of all ages, Kelly finds college campuses particularly important to discuss these issues on since students are just beginning to discover themselves and the communities around them. College was where Kelly first began to notice she was different from her peers and discover the culture surrounding her disability. Talking to college students about subjects such as disability can be an important step in helping them discover their own identities.
“I think [college] students are opening their eyes and their ears and really starting to ask questions and really dive deep and think for themselves,” Kelly said. “So I think college campuses are a great way to get in with young adults who are still forming opinions. And if you can get in with people who are still forming opinions, you can kind of guide them to the correct opinion.”
One major point Kelly wants students to take away from her speeches is that, though different, she is not broken or wanting to be fixed in any way. She is proud of what makes her unique, just as anyone else is proud of their identities. As Kelly toured the Disability Center before her speech, she and Brickley discussed the “magic pill” question: If you could take a magic pill that would take away your disability, would you? Their consensus was no, neither of them would, despite the barriers both women have faced in their lives due to these disabilities.
“I think, in general, disability is a part of who we are as people,” Kelly said. “So yet again, it’s nothing that’s shameful. I don’t have any want or intention of ‘fixing myself.’ I am the way that I am, I’m that way for a reason and I am very okay with being that person, so there’s no need for you to feel uncomfortable. There’s no need for me to feel uncomfortable. There’s no fixing involved. It’s just a matter of having a conversation about how we remove those barriers and make [the world] a more accessible place.”
Breaking down these barriers can begin with events such as Celebrate Ability Week, but Brickley says it goes far beyond that. To truly create an accessible world for those with disabilities, the lessons learned from events like this have to be carried into everyday life.
“It’s been a great Celebrate Ability Week,” Brickley said. “One thing I always say is you shouldn’t just celebrate ability one week out of the year; this should be an ongoing thing. So I really encourage people to continue learning more about disability rights and culture and look for more events as they come up this year.”
These events can be seen both on OrgSync and on the Disability Center’s (website)[https://disabilitycenter.missouri.edu/]. The Disability Center is in the basement of Memorial Student Union and is open for any students currently living with any sort of disability. More information about Kelly, as well as her vlogs and interviews with other members of the disabled community, can be found at (missnicolegkelly.com)[https://www.missnicolegkelly.com/about].
Edited by Alexandra Sharp | firstname.lastname@example.org