Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Legally blind contestant competes in Miss USA Florida pageant

From The Sun-Sentinel in Florida:

Connor Boss (pictured), who will be wearing the Miss Delray Beach sash Saturday night in the Miss Florida USA pageant at Broward College, isn't much on talking about herself.

The 18-year-old Royal Palm Beach resident will admit to being “really excited” about the pageant, her fifth since she began competing by winning the Harvest Queen crown in Belle Glade as a 16-year-old. She'll brag on her older sister attending Florida State, her mom being a teacher at Everglades Elementary, her dad's work with the Broward Sheriff's Office fire-rescue department.

She tells you she just graduated from Glades Day School, forgetting to mention her 4.2 GPA and that she was senior class president. If you ask her, she'll describe her high school accomplishments in track and field, where she ran the 800 meters for four years. But she'll downplay her 2-minute, 45-second personal best: “I wasn't very good,” she says.

She also doesn't see the point in mentioning that she's legally blind.

No, to pry that out of her you need to call back and ask her specifically to confirm what you discovered after your first conversation about the pageant: That she has Stargardt's disease, a retina-ravaging disorder that presented itself when Connor was 8, turning typical 20/20 vision into 2400/2600 vision and rendering the world a hazy blur.

“When she heard you found out, she turned to me and said, ‘Oh, no…',” says her mom, Traci Boss, during the second call. “She does not want to be treated differently. She does not want sympathy from people.”
Connor doesn't drive a car (“a huge bummer,” she says); she excelled at school with the help of special magnifiers, enlarged worksheets, books on CD and having tests read to her; and she has a lot of trouble with stairs. Not a good thing for a beauty pageant contestant.

Each competitor in the Miss Florida USA pageant, the winner of which represents the state in the Miss USA judging, must walk a predetermined pattern to hit certain marks onstage at Bailey Hall Saturday night. Connor, who navigates her way through the pageant largely by sound and memory, will get extra rehearsal time to count out her steps onstage.

At last year's Miss Florida USA pageant, when Connor finished as second runner-up in the teen category, she stumbled on the stairs in the swimsuit segment. Unless there is bright-colored tape on the edge of each stair, they all blend together for Connor. She doesn't know what the stage set-up will be this year, but isn't concerned how it might affect her poise.

“I'm just gonna do it. I'm gonna do it to it!” she says brightly.

Executive producer Grant Gravitt has been with the Miss Florida USA pageant since 1978 and says Connor is the first legally blind contestant in pageant history.

“But she doesn't play that card. You will never hear her mention that,” says Gravitt, who has known Connor for more than three years. “She's just cool, cool. Very inspirational.”

The Miss Florida USA pageant will be televised around the state Saturday night , including WPLG and WTVK, but Connor won't use the same cues that viewers will to compare herself to the rest of the women. She has little sense of what she looks like and can't see other contestants' faces unless she gets uncomfortably close and uses her peripheral vision. Bodies are just blurry shapes.

“I have to judge people by their personality. Not to talk pageant-y, but I like to think that beauty comes from within. It's important to exude that, to try to be kind to everyone,” Connor says.

Traci Boss hopes her daughter's story is an antidote to the “terrible stereotype” of beauty pageants as focused exclusively on visual superficialities. The Harvest Queen crown two years ago turned Connor into a new person, she says.

“There was a change in her, in her self-confidence, and she's just kept going,” Traci says, rattling off a list of Connor's subsequent volunteer work, mentoring efforts and speaking engagements. In the fall, she'll start college at FSU. “She has overcome every obstacle. If [her pageant appearance] inspires people, that's even better.”

Connor herself, however, will admit that she has not overcome every obstacle.

“I walk into the men's bathroom all the time. All the time,” she says with a laugh. “Usually, by the time I figure it out, it's ‘Whoops! Sorry!' People think I'm crazy.”