Rachel Barcellona is an unstoppable advocate for inclusion and a real hero in her community. She’s been participating in beauty pageants since the age of five years, except for a brief break during a period of depression and anxiety in middle school, and now she’s competing in the Miss Florida contest of 2019.
Many people assume beauty pageant contestants are beautiful but vapid girls with little intelligence or real concern for current events, but most contestants are actually very active in their communities and aim to make a real difference in the world. Rachel is no different. She has autism, but instead of letting it be a disability in her life, she’s using as motivation for her work. Her goal is to show pageant viewers that people with autism can do anything!
When Rachel was diagnosed with autism as a young child, doctors told her family that she was not likely to succeed in school, hold down a job, or achieve any of the other important milestones most of us expect to see in our lives.
“I was basically promised that I would never graduate any school really or have any friends,” says Rachel. “Pretty much everything bad was going to happen to me because I have autism.”
But Rachel’s mother was not content to allow the doctors’ predictions to come true. She always believed Rachel was capable of more and pushed her to do her best in everything. With her family’s support, Rachel has served as a board member for the University of South Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, an international ambassador for the Unicorn Children’s Foundation, and an ambassador for inclusivity non-profit Help Us Gather. She has walked at New York Fashion Week and spoke at the United Nations’ World Autism Awareness Day in New York City.
“I want people to know that autism does not hold me back. It’s actually an opportunity for me to achieve my dreams,” Rachel says. “I want to use my voice to inspire hope to others. Awareness is okay, but we need acceptance.”
Rachel is an accomplished opera singer, and she enjoys working with children at the Glazer Children’s Museum. She has made more than 300 public appearances to promote acceptance and understanding of autism and neurodiversity. She currently attends the University of South Florida, where she is studying communications.
Rachel won the Miss Florida International contest in 2016 and was crowned National American Miss Florida for 2018. In 2019, she’s already been named Miss Manatee River and is moving on to the more prestigious Miss Florida pageant.
Rachel says judges in most of the pageants she’s participated in have asked about her autism spectrum disorder, so she’s prepared answers to several difficult but important questions on the topic. She’s not afraid to talk about ASD, because she wants to educate people about the disorder to reduce the stigma surrounding it.
“Usually they bring up my disability. So I would say it doesn’t affect me negatively and I am very capable of inspiring people and holding a title,” says Rachel. “I would say that pageantry is also a spectrum. You have to find the right ones for you.”
Check out the video below to learn more about Rachel’s remarkable life and her upcoming pageant!
Thank you, Rachel Barcellona, for bravely embracing the difficult things in life and inspiring others to follow their dreams, even if those around them believe they can’t. You are truly an inspiration!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?