Every year, a small gated community in Fort Lauderdale, Florida hosts a beauty pageant with just one overriding sentiment: to empower young women with disabilities.

Traditionally, beauty pageants have been rooted in able-bodied representation (and a very specific type of body at that). But upon watching an HBO documentary about a pageant for girls with special needs in Iowa, Jessica Rodriguez, the Chief Marketing and Development Officer of Arc Broward (a non profit based in Fort Lauderdale), marched into her boss' office the next day with a plan. "I said, 'You know, these girls down here deserve the same opportunity, and it's a beautiful way to celebrate them. So we need to do something similar,'" Rodriguez said.

Today in its seventh year, the Miss Arc Broward Pageant receives applications from all over South Florida. "We put out the applications for families in our community in the summer and it's open to any young woman with a disability between ages six and seventeen. We've had girls come from Miami to all the way to West Palm beach," Rodriguez says.

Once the contestants are chosen (on a first come first serve basis), a number of events like ice cream socials and yacht parties are organized in order for the girls to get to know each other and build bonds. These events run for close to three months leading up to the pageant, on the Veteran's Day weekend in November.

The events are mainly designed to promote self-esteem and confidence amongst the girls. "You wouldn't believe how many of these families that I've gotten to know through this process talk about bullying," Rodriguez said. "These girls experience really hard situations at school. So it's nice for them to just come together for these few months and just feel celebrated and safe."

She adds that ultimately, the goal is for the girls to feel comfortable and have fun. So, in the event that a contestant is too nervous to get out on stage on the day of the pageant, they're simply encouraged to try again later. "This is not an event where we're dragging your child on stage. We'll text you and say, 'Hey, Bella didn't wanna go out this time, but we're going to encourage her for the next round.' Usually, by the second round, they get that burst of self-esteem and confidence to go out," she says. "It's truly mind-blowing and such an inspiration to watch them takeover the stage and continually conquer and overcome fears that most of us who don't even have a disability aren't able to do."

Much like a traditional pageant, the girls go through a series of different rounds that test their talents and personalities, where contestants can pick anything they like for their chosen talent. These include standard pageant fare like singing, dancing, cheerleading and showcasing artwork or playing a musical instrument. But in the end, there are no rules. "It can be anything! If they just want to walk onstage in a fun outfit and call it their personality, we're fine with that, too," Rodriguez says.

This is followed by an 'interview round' where the girls are posed fun questions, like their favorite color and their motivation to win the pageant. "It's really just about questions that will set these young women up for success," Rodriguez explains. "Some of [the contestants] are non-verbal. One year we had a contestant who used a talking device, so we had to prepare the questions ahead of time in order for her to press the buttons to answer them. We will work with the contestants to help make all of it a relaxed experience, of course, but you're always surprised by that one contestant who blows your mind –– literally we've had girls take the microphone from the MC to just start talking."

Despite an overall supportive environment, going on stage can still be nerve-wracking, as is losing to the other contestants. "We really look at who they were and what really stood out over the entire pageant season. Every single contestant wins a unique award and it's given at the end and it celebrates who they are. So think of it as almost like a superlative," says Rodriguez. "These range from 'Most Likely to Be the Next Beyonce' to 'Most Likely to Be the Next President.' We do have the judges pick one 'Miss' and one 'Little Miss' depending on their age and that individual represents all of the girls in the pageant as a whole at various events in our community throughout the next year to continue pushing out this message of empowerment and inclusion."

Still, aren't there times when the girls are disappointed when they weren't selected as the Miss Arc Broward? "Absolutely. But isn't that part of life? Don't we all need to learn how to handle disappointment?" Rodriguez says. "That to me is what we as an organization promote and do with our participants. It's like we want to help you reach your goals, we want to help you reach your full potential, but we also want to prepare you for what life is."

An inspiring and important sentiment. But beyond all the glitter and fun surrounding the event, what remains is the actual logistics and financial onus of an event of this scale. "We tell the families first and foremost we do not want this to be a financial burden for you, so if you need help buying the clothes or anything let us know and we will make that happen," Rodriguez says.

As a non profit, Arc Broward is responsible for not only supplying clothes and makeup, should the girls need it, but also finding sponsors and fundraising. Luckily, members of the community, from local shop owners to just empathetic patrons, have been generous in lending their support. "Our local mall gives them all money to go shopping and buy their dresses. Their whole bag is filled with nail polish and things are donated from beauty supply companies down here." There are also partnerships with pageants like Miss Florida and Miss USA.

"It's truly mind-blowing and such an inspiration to watch them takeover the stage and continually conquer and overcome fears that most of us who don't even have a disability aren't able to do."

"We'd love to have a brand like Essie or just someone big who'd want to donate to explore this with, because it is only 20 girls that participate every year but we have 800 people that came out last year, so it is a pretty big audience down here in South Florida," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez isn't ashamed of asking for help, but the motivation for any big brand to put money into remains limited, especially since there isn't much publicity surrounding the event. Despite it's surface efforts, much of mainstream beauty and fashion continue to fall behind in efforts to make inclusivity and equal representation a true priority. But perhaps an event that's entirely rooted in celebrating equality and inclusion may just be a starting point.

"Women are constantly dealing with insecurities, constantly asking. 'Am I pretty enough?' 'Am I good enough?' It doesn't matter if you have a disability or not, we are all seeing that, feeling that and struggling with it every single day so I am proud of that fact that being a part of this event gives these young women that moment to feel like, 'I am beautiful, I am important, I have a voice, and I have a purpose in this world,'" Rodriguez says.

"Our pageant does celebrate these girls for their overall personalities and talent but it also takes into account all the things that have spun to my mind about beauty and getting dressed up and makeup and hair and celebrates it," Rodriguez said. "It's not something that then the next day they're like, "Oh I'm not pretty anymore because I don't have a hair stylist here to do my hair.' They just remember how fun it was that moment that they had it."

To donate, participate, volunteer or simply get involved with Miss Arc Broward pageant, click here.

Photos courtesy of Arc Broward

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