Miss Iowa serves as one-armed advocate for others with disabilities

Nicole Kelly says her new role shows she has 'just as much ability as anyone else'

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Nicole Kelly’s decision to compete in the Miss Iowa pageant began when she realized she’s always lived with a means to advocate for others, like her, who are different.

“My everyday life is living with a disability, living with the stares,” the 23-year-old Keokuk native said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Living with the platform is something that I’ve done forever and always.”

Kelly, born with one arm, was crowned last week as Miss Iowa 2013 and will go on to compete for the title of Miss America this fall. As she steps into the spotlight, she will bring her platform “overcoming disabilities” with her, and fellow Iowa disabilities advocates are cheering her on.

“I’m glad Nicole has the opportunity to speak out for others, like myself, and others that have disabilities,” said Marc Zider, a recent University of Iowa graduate. “I think it’s just wonderful and I think she’s the right person to do it.”

Zider, 24, said he met the spirited and perky Kelly as her brother’s college roommate.  Zider has endured lifelong health problems, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia as an infant.

Kelly is the second Miss Iowa with a limb difference, following one-handed baton twirling Miss Iowa 2000, Theresa Uchytil-Etler. Uchytil-Etler said the two women share similar platforms, and the opportunity they’ve been given to spread it nationally sends a message of hope.

“Whatever it is you want to accomplish, don’t let anyone tell you ‘no,’” Uchytil-Etler said. “Anything is possible.”

Kelly, who grew up doing activities like dancing, playing baseball, and later found her calling in theatrical production, said her role as Miss Iowa shows she has “just as much ability as anyone else.”

Tasha DeGroote, Miss Wheelchair Iowa 2013, said she was very excited to hear Kelly won and the two share a similar passion. DeGroote, whose focus has been on athletic equality for those with disabilities, said she hopes the two can work together to inspire others.

“We can do the exact same thing that anybody else can do, we just have to do it from a chair,” DeGroote said of those who are wheelchair bound. “As long as you have the time and determination and confidence you can do it…that’s basically all you need to get it done.”

Kelly said the best part has been the opportunity to work with a variety of groups, including visiting Shriners Hospitals for Children, where she visited as a child.  Uchytil-Etler said Kelly should take full advantage of this role as a public servant, something she still does 13 years later.

“Your year as Miss Iowa is a starting point for you to continue giving back to your community,” she said.

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