A “Miss Amazing” Experience

Young woman in a long flowing tefeta gown on stage with host standing behind with Miss Amazine wall background

“Miss Amazing” is a nonprofit organization with chapters in more than 30 states and a goal to have 10,000 girls and women with disabilities participate in its programs by 2030. Founded by Jordan Somer in 2007, the organization’s mission is to build self-esteem in girls and women with disabilities, helping them master key life skills, and creating pathways to advocacy and leadership.

The motivation for the organization can be traced back to Jordan’s volunteer work at the Special Olympics, where she was inspired to provide the female athletes with the same empowering experience that she gained through her own involvement in pageant competitions.

The “Miss Amazing” commitment to empowering girls and women with disabilities aligns with its founder’s vision of providing a platform for self-expression, personal growth, and sisterhood, ultimately fostering self-esteem and confidence in this community of girls and women with disabilities.

Both the “Miss Amazing” state-level AMPLIFY events and the national ADVOCATE event focus on three key skill areas for girls and women starting at age 5 through adulthood. Winners at the state level are invited to the national summit where they compete to be crowned the national winner in their respective age division.

The first “Miss Amazing” skill area is the Introduction which involves having the girls and women take the stage and give a brief speech about themselves in front of an audience. This helps develop important public speaking skills and self-confidence. Then, there is the Interview skill area, where each participant sits down for a conversation with panel of judges. This helps them gain experience that may prepare them for a future job interview.

The third skill area is the Passion Presentation. Here, participants share a short presentation about a hobby or passion. While many participants showcase talents like singing or dancing in their presentation, the program has evolved to embrace a wide variety of talents and interests, including unique passions like caring for chickens. This Passion Presentation allows participants to express their strengths and interests in a supportive environment.

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This year’s “Miss Amazing” national summit was held in Chicago. When not presenting, the girls and women are encouraged to make new friends thanks to a buddy system, which pairs girls and women together, providing a more structured way to meet and make friends with someone new. The summit also included personal development workshops, a ‘glam’ session with hair & makeup tips, a PJ party with games and crafts and other enrichment activities. The three-day event culminates with a gala and closing ceremony where national “Miss Amazing” representatives are announced.

Among the winners at this year’s “Miss Amazing” national summit, was Nori Rose Barnes, a 31-year-old college student from Illinois, who identifies as non-binary. Along with their studies, Nori is a disability advocate who speaks on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for the Special Olympics and other organizations.

ABILITY Magazine’s Jennifer Goga met with Nori via Zoom to learn how “Miss Amazing” has helped them master important social skills, gain confidence and become a disability advocate for themself and others.

Young woman wearing a sequined gown and a headset performing while holding a tablent
Nori Barnes presentation

Jennifer Goga: Hi Nori, how are you? Is this still a good time to talk?

Nori Barnes: Hi. Yes, it’s a good time. I’m actually here at school today because I have a DEI neurodiversity symposium. Then I’ll go home for an hour and get ready for the Homecoming dance tonight.

Goga: That’s a busy day. Well, thanks for squeezing me in.

Barnes: Well, thank you. I’m really excited to talk to you.

Goga: Why don’t you just start by telling me a little bit about yourself, your background.

Barnes: My name is Nori, and I am 31 years old. I live and thrive with autism spectrum disorder. I am deaf, hard of hearing, and I have Tourette syndrome.

Goga: And you mentioned you’re going to school, right?

Barnes: Yes, I am at a community college called Rock Valley College. I am a freshman. This is my first semester

Goga: Do you know what you plan to study or what your career goals are?

Barnes: I’m working toward an Associate of Arts degree, majoring in Humanities, and then I plan to transfer to a four-year college. I’m still deciding about which four-year college.

Goga: Well, you have some time to pick one, right?

Barnes: Yes, I am planning to eventually get my doctorate degree in Humanities with a specialization in education and special education. I want to come back here to Rock Valley College and work as a humanities professor.

Goga: That’s a good plan. Okay, so Humanities, remind me what sorts of things you’ll be learning and then someday teaching?

Barnes: Humanities is the study of all things human. It’s ancient languages, current languages, religion, music, art. The study of everything that is part of the human race. We just got done learning about ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. We’re currently studying ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

Goga: Very interesting.

Barnes: In my current class, I’m studying more about Western humanities, but we do touch lightly on the Prophet Muhammad and stuff like that. We do a little non-Western culture, but not as much as some of the classes that I’ll take later.

Goga: Tell me, how did you first learn about “Miss Amazing?”

Barnes: I learned about ‘“Miss Amazing”’ back in 2018. I was in a really bad depression. One of my friends’ moms reached out to me, and she said, “Hey, Nori, have you ever thought about participating in a pageant?” I was like, ‘Oh I don’t know about all that.’ She explained it to me, and I’ll admit that it took a lot of convincing. But I decided that I was going to try it, and I really enjoyed it. It boosted my confidence and my self-esteem. It helped me to be able to see my own self-worth.

Goga: Wow. That’s great. What was that experience like?

Barnes: I live in Illinois, so I participated at the Illinois Chapter of “Miss Amazing” and I actually ended up winning at the state level. Then I attended nationals, and I actually won Nationals in my division that year.

Goga: Wow. You’re a star.

Barnes: Thanks. Then, my hearing declined significantly after that, and I had to take a step back from pageantry and ‘“Miss Amazing”.’ I had to take a step back from Special Olympics as well because my physical health hit a really low point. I ended up getting diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS).

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Goga: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Would you mind sharing a little about EDS and how it affects you?

Barnes: It’s a genetic connective tissue disorder. I have a form called hypermobility. It’s a rare condition, rare meaning that it’s just not widely diagnosed. In my case, it affects my joints and muscles and my organs will slowly begin to deteriorate and shut down. But I tend to fall a lot. It’s like having really, really elastic joints and muscles, but the problem with that is when normally people would break a bone or something, I don’t. Instead, I hyper-extend everything and I stretch my muscles out.

Goga: So would you tell me about your “Miss Amazing” experience? If I have this correct, there are three different parts to it—an introduction, interview and passion presentation, right?

Barnes: Yes, that’s right. In 2018 when I first participated in the state level, you signed up for a two-day pageant. Back then, they called it a talent portion that you did on Friday night, and then on Saturday you would do the actual pageant portion. But now the state level is just one day, and the talent is called a passion presentation now.

Goga: What do you typically do for your passion presentation?

Barnes: I usually sing, but this year I did speeches because that’s what I do for my job.

Goga: That’s interesting. What kind of job involves giving speeches?

Barnes: I am an internationally recognized self-advocate for myself and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Goga: That’s great. Are you associated with a particular organization or do you independently speak at various events?

Barnes: I’m associated with the Special Olympics, and other organizations.

Goga: Have you traveled a lot doing that type of work?

Barnes: Yes. Actually, next month I will be in Chicago for a week. I am one of the keynote speakers for the International Conference for Law Enforcement, Torch Run, benefiting Special Olympics.

Goga: You are a very busy person. I wonder if you could share how your involvement with “Miss Amazing” has helped you get to where you are now? How has it helped with your self-esteem and your confidence?

Barnes: Things for me really got a lot better this year. Because of COVID, I regressed in the progress that I had made, being almost three years stuck in your home with no interaction outside of your immediate family. I struggled with communicating. I struggled with being around new people. When I got the opportunity to do “Miss Amazing” again and I signed up, I was excited, but I was really anxious too.. When I went to the state level, it was like being thrown into the fire, essentially. I went with my pageant coach and Special Olympic speech coach Mama Katie. One of the big things about “Miss Amazing” is that they have a buddy system. They want the girls to spend time with their buddies to practice how to socialize with people that maybe they don’t know very well.

African American woman with long hair wearing a tiara and ohio miss amazing ribbon sash

When Mama Katie and I got there. She said to me, ‘Okay, you’re going to be with your buddy and I’m going to go do some work.” And I was like, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to die.’

Goga: But you didn’t die, I guess? (laughs)

Barnes: No, I didn’t, and I didn’t cry this year either. The first year, I cried like somebody was killing me.

Goga: But now you can look back and laugh about that, right?

Barnes: I do because it’s like I remember clinging to Momma Katie when they said that the parents were going to go into a different room, and I was like, ‘Oh no, you’re not leaving me.

Goga: Katie has worked with you through the Special Olympics, and she joined you for “Miss Amazing” too? so you knew her already. But your ‘buddy’ was a stranger to you at first.

Barnes: Yeah, that’s correct. My “Miss Amazing” buddy was really nice, but it was difficult to talk and stuff because I didn’t know her. I had to overcome this really deep social anxiety that had remanifested because of COVID. I ended up being able to talk to her. A lot of the girls that I participated with back in 2018 are no longer doing “Miss Amazing.”  There were a lot of new faces. Learning again how to interact with people who I don’t know was definitely a learning experience.

For the Illinois state-level event, it’s pretty unstructured during that first interaction. Like me, I didn’t really interact or socialize. With nationals, it’s a lot more structured with getting everybody to socialize and communicate. They have different little workshops that we do.

This year they did a group buddy system where you had a group of girls that were with a buddy. I got really close to a group of girls that shared the same buddy. We were also all in the same age division, so that allowed me to succeed at interpersonal relationships with those girls. Then they had friends that they knew, and so I ended up getting introduced to them. It was this really cool, big group of new friends. I made more friends than I realized I was going to make.

Goga: Terrific. Now, will you keep in touch with them through social media or texting after you get back home?

Barnes: I have business cards with a QR code that has all of my social media channels. I usually try to hand those out, especially the people that I made connections with. I gave my phone number out to a few of the girls that I got really close to.

It can be a surreal experience for me being a deaf, hard-of-hearing person, tu it turns out that the former National Senior Miss Queen, her name is Autumn, is actually deaf as well. It was this really beautiful moment to be able to get to know her and to share that experience and have somebody that you have that commonality with.

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Goga: Oh, that’s so nice that you and Autumn were able to meet and share your experiences. I assume the “Miss Amazing” organizers make arrangements for you with captioning and things like that.

Barnes: Yes, that did. At school, I use captioning and I use a live interpreter. They have that at “Miss Amazing.” They have live-captioning and an interpreter. It’s like with anything, sometimes it’s hard to follow everything that’s going on. So being able to have the close relationship that I ended up building with Autumn and us being able to sign during the weekend was really nice.

Goga: Do you think that “Miss Amazing” has helped you to feel comfortable challenging some of the stereotypes about people with disabilities? Do you think you’ve learned skills that will help you change some of those perceptions that people sometimes have?

Barnes: Yes. I actually do that in my everyday life, and “Miss Amazing” has definitely given me a platform to do that even more than ever. Here at college, I started a club called “Students Promoting An Inclusive Community. Part of what our club does is try to show people that our differences are what make us who we are. Our differences are what make us unique, whether that be disabilities, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, religion, race.

As a person with disabilities, I get to really show everybody first-hand that if people with disabilities are given the time, tools, and support that we can accomplish really anything that anybody else can do.

I never in a million years thought I would be going to college. Yesterday I was working on my plan for my college classes and how they’ll lead me on my career path, and I cried because it was this overwhelming realization that I’m actually in college and I’m going to get an Associate of Arts degree in May of 2026, my goodness gracious.

Goga: That’s great. Clearly, it’s a big dream of yours to get your degree. Do you have any other ambitions, something else you’d like to pursue?

Barnes: My big dream is to come back to this college and teach as a professor. I want to be able to show them that you can do anything with a disability. Don’t ever let somebody limit you. I grew up being told that I’d never have a quality of life, that I’d never accomplish anything, that the only thing I would ever do is graduate from high school, and that would be the only thing I’d ever do. Sadly, I believed it.  I heard it for so long that I started believing it and I never had somebody in my corner that told me that I could succeed. When I started looking at Rock Valley College and was told that they were set up to help me succeed, it was this earthshattering moment. It was the first time that anyone ever said, “You can do this and we’re going to help you succeed.”  I want to be that voice for people in the future, and “Miss Amazing” has given me the opportunity and the tools to be able to be that. That’s great.

Goga: Very well said, Nori. Is there anything else you want to convey or share about living with a disability and the role “Miss Amazing” has played in getting to where you are now?

girl in a dress singing into a microphone

Barnes: I think if I would tell people one thing “Miss Amazing” has instilled in me, it would probably be to never let somebody judge you and don’t judge other people based on stereotypes. I would highly encourage everyone to attend events like “Miss Amazing” and Special Olympics, because you will see the most amazing things—you will see people succeeding.

Goga: Which event do you compete in with Special Olympics?

Barnes: I compete in track and field, bocce, volleyball, basketball, snowshoe, softball, bowling. I think I covered it all.

Goga: Oh, my gosh. I don’t know how you have time to go to school and your advocacy work and all these other things you’re involved with.

Barnes: Well, when I describe my job, I explain it this way: “I yell at politicians in my best Walmart customer service voice— because that’s what advocacy is.” And I have to do that mainly because I do not have the privilege of old white men in politics. If I don’t get my way, I can’t yell and scream and cry and whoop and holler, because if I do that, then I’m promoting the stigma of disability, and doing that will only validate their belief that people with disability should not be involved in politics.

Goga: That’s why you use your nice Walmart greeters voice, instead of yelling and screaming like you’d like to sometimes when you’re trying to get politicians to support funding for organizations that help people with disabilities. Did I get that right?

Barnes: Yeah, exactly. There have been times that I’ve had to excuse myself from a meeting to be able to just keep my own emotions in check. I’ve had to ask for a bathroom break just to go to the bathroom to cry because I don’t want to cry in front of politicians. I don’t want to fuel their falso belief that people with disabilities can’t emotionally regulate. But its ironic, because if you’ve ever watched any political debate, I think its clear they’re the ones who can’t regulate.

Goga: You make some good points there, Nori.

Barnes: Thank you.

Goga: Now, I want to confirm that you use “they/them” pronouns, is that right?

Barnes: Yes. I’m nonbinary. Part of what I advocate for is the disability voice in the LGBTQIA+ community because unfortunately, there’s a lot of gatekeeping that happens in that community because people have this idea that because we have intellectual and developmental disabilities that we can’t understand or comprehend our sexuality or our gender identity, and that certainly we must be confused. I make sure to advocate that that’s not the case. I advocate that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can have healthy, safe, romantic, and sexual relationships. How ever that looks for them. I try to make sure that people are aware of what condoms are, what contraceptives are and  things like that, because personally, I didn’t grow up knowing about that stuff. I now live with my mom and my adoptive dad, and they have a very open dialogue with me. If I ever have questions about anything, they answer questions. I try to give that to other people because I’ve had people come to me and were assaulted and didn’t even know the own parts of their body. Because they didn’t know the actual name of that part of their body, people didn’t take them seriously. A lot of times what happens is people see people with down syndrome and they’ll say, ‘Oh, somebody touched me, and people just think that they’re confused.

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I try to teach people to, in that sense even, advocate for themselves. I want them to know that they can say, “Hey, I don’t want you to touch me there, or, Hey, somebody touched me here and I was not okay with it.” Unfortunately, being a survivor myself of situations like that, I understand that you really have to push people to listen to you. I want to share that its OK to say, “No, I need this. This happened to me, and I was not okay with it, and I need you to listen. I need you to help me.” And it’s so important to be persistent and make people listen to you.

Goga: Well, what you’re doing is very important. .

Barnes: Thank you.

Goga: Well, have a great time at the Homecoming Dance. Thank you for taking the time to share your story with me.

Barnes: Thank you so much.

For more information about “Miss Amazing” and to find a state chapter near you: Miss Amazing.org


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