Disability Lead Member Nicole Kelly gained national attention as one of the few individuals with a physical disability to ever compete in the Miss America Pageant. She is a professional public speaker represented by Keppler Speaking Agency and has proudly spoken at hundreds of K-12 schools and lectured at universities across the country. Her recent speaking engagements include Google, Microsoft, and NPR’s The Moth Mainstage. Nicole is a board member at Chicago’s Free Street Theater; an ambassador for COAPT (a manufacturer of thought-controlled bionic limbs); and a company advisory member with the National Disability Theatre. She also co-hosts the podcast Disarming Disability, which aims to deconstruct the social stigma surrounding disability. Nicole’s proudest moment was serving as the emcee at the Kennedy Center’s celebration for the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2017, she completed her master’s degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
For most of my life, I thought I knew exactly who I was. Then I became world news and realized — maybe I didn’t?
I was born a congenital amputee, without a left hand and forearm. Today, congenital amputation can be detected by ultrasound around the 20th week of pregnancy. My parents, however, had no way of knowing about my difference — much less preparing for it — until I was born. To top it off, our tiny Iowa town had no disability community or resources to turn to for guidance. We were on our own.
My parents and teachers felt that if I was going to survive, I had to fit in. They took care never to say I had a “disability,” as if the term were a bad word. I was constantly told I was “no different,” “perfectly able,” or “just the same” as everyone else. Today we would call this approach ableism, but it was very much in line with the conventional wisdom of the time.
I was thrown into every imaginable activity — swimming, marching band, theater, you name it. I grew up unafraid to try anything but always believing I had to do things exactly like everyone else. After all, I wasn’t disabled, so why should I be treated any differently?
Occasionally I would try using tools and prosthetics to help me perform better, only to get embarrassed and reject them. I didn’t want to stand out any more than I already did, even if it meant having to work harder.
Right after college, my love for theater and performing led me to compete in and win the 2013 Miss Iowa pageant. I loved the experience, but when I saw the coverage of me in the national and global news, I was stunned.
Nearly every headline described me as the “disabled” girl who was headed to the Miss America pageant. There it was for the world to see — the label I had worked so hard to dispel. How loud did I have to shout for people to understand that I didn’t have a disability, that I was just like every other girl in the competition?
Being crowned Miss Iowa may have led to my disability identity crisis, but it also put me on the path to finding a new way of thinking.
After the Miss America pageant (which I didn’t win, just in case you were wondering), I was invited to spend a day riding with the adaptive sports team for RAGBRAI, the annual bike ride across Iowa. I signed on, thinking it would be the perfect opportunity to prove once and for all that I wasn’t “one of them.”
As I rode with this amazing group of people and listened to their stories, my understanding of disability began to turn on its head. What if disability wasn’t a bad word? What if the messages I had received my entire life from the people who loved me the most were wrong?
From there, my world began to tilt. I read everything I could find about the disability movement and sought out experts and mentors. I was connected to Access Living, the legendary disability rights group. I applied for and became a Fellow for the Institute, Disability Lead's leadership program that trains people to lead with their disability identity. I had finally found the support I needed from a community that knew firsthand what I was going through.
Looking back on my Miss America experience, I wish I had used that moment differently. Instead of insisting I was just the same as the other contestants, I wish I had taken the opportunity to highlight and celebrate diversity, and to raise tough questions about why no other individuals with visible disabilities were on that stage.
Now, as a leader who proudly identities as having a disability, my personal mission is to share my story so that others don’t repeat my mistake and waste their own Miss America opportunity.
I want people to know that having a disability and expressing your disability identity should never bring you shame or embarrassment. And you should never hesitate to feel worthy enough to ask for — and use — any accommodation you need.
After years of pushing tools away, I now use a bionic hand. It makes certain tasks easier, and it’s a wonderful conversation-starter that helps bridge awareness and understanding for people who don’t experience disabilities.
If your story sounds like mine, know that you’re not alone. And when you’re ready to reach out, there is an incredible community of support waiting to embrace you.