USF student with autism will compete in Miss Florida pageant

Rachel Barcellona focuses on raising acceptance for people with autism and other disabilities with her Ability Beyond Disabilities platform. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

It takes more than waving to the audience and wearing shining crowns to bear the title of Miss Florida. History will be made this year as the first candidate with autism will compete for the title and inspire many as she shares her story.

Rachel Barcellona, a junior majoring in English and communications, is the current 2019 Miss Manatee River and will be competing for the crown of Miss Florida for the first time.

She was first diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 and was told by people that she would never graduate or have any friends because of her disability.

Turns out those people were wrong.

As a way to help develop her social skills and make friends, Barcellona started competing in pageants when she was 5 and has won several titles ever since then.

“I have autism and I’ve always competed in pageants since I was 5 years old as it helped me come out of my shell,” Barcellona said. “I just want to show people with disabilities and even without them that anything’s possible and that I can do it.”

However, when she was in fourth grade, she decided to take another route. From competing in pageants around the state, Barcellona decided to change gears by competing in spelling bees.

It wasn’t until 13 that she returned back to the pageant life. According to Barcellona, she was experiencing anxiety and depression. However, pageants helped her overcome those challenges.

For her mother, Barbara Barcellona, the Miss Florida title would give Rachel the opportunity to help even more people while speaking about autism and the importance of acceptance.

“Rachel has been involved in volunteering and community service since she was 12,” Barbara said. “She developed her social impact statement Ability Beyond Disabilities as she wanted to help others with disabilities.”

Rachel’s story has gone viral as the Miss Florida competition gets closer. So far, she has been featured in articles all over the world, including Australia, England, Albania, Ireland and Colombia.

Earlier this year, Barcellona spoke at the United Nations’s World Autism Awareness Day event in New York about her personal experiences growing up with autism and how pageants helped her develop her social skills. In addition, Barcellona is a singer and has performed at Madison Square Garden three times.

Besides holding the Miss Manatee River title, Barcellona is part of USF’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities’ board and is an international ambassador for the Unicorn Children’s Foundation.

As one of the requirements to compete for Miss Florida, candidates must stand for a social impact initiative that they have been working on throughout the years. Barcellona focuses on raising acceptance for people with autism and other disabilities.

“I’m so happy because I live my platform every day,” Barcellona said. “It encompasses a whole spectrum of everything. Whether you’re blind, in a wheelchair or even if you feel like you don’t belong in this world, you’re needed. By raising acceptance, then there’s actual inclusion and focus on the positive things that we can do.”

Throughout her life, she has suffered prejudices and people doubting her capabilities due to her disability. According to Barcellona, she was told during a pageant that she might not be capable of holding a title because of her autism.

Whenever she comes across those scenarios, she seeks to educate and share her passion to seek acceptance.

“Autism doesn’t have only one face and we don’t all look the same," Barcellona said. "When we face these misconceptions in society, that’s when activism starts. We need to educate people and show that we have many faces.

“To everyone who ever doubted me, thanks for being the fuel to my fire.”