As a champion swimmer and beauty queen, a blind woman with albinism breaks down barriers

Meet Mackenzie Strong, a blind woman with albinism who is driven to educate herself. She balances the roles of Student Body Vice President and Vice President of her literary club at Illinois College, as well as a double major in history and secondary education and competitive swimming…

Mackenzie’s albinism is not a hindrance; rather, it has become a superpower that she uses to navigate life.

Albinism is a rare hereditary condition that impairs vision by reducing the amount of melanin pigment in the skin, hair, and/or eyes. Albino people have impaired vision that cannot be corrected with glasses.

Strong, who is legally blind, must frequently hold her phone very close to her face and zoom in to view information, for example. Albinism affects approximately one in every 18,000 to 20,000 people in the United States, according to Albinism.org. She never let the fact that she was strong deter her from pursuing her dreams.

«I started competing in beauty pageants at the age of six, primarily because I didn’t have any friends.» «It’s difficult to be different and not fit in with everyone else,» Strong said.

Strong finished second in her first beauty pageant, which gave her an instant confidence boost.

She now credits pageants with the majority of her skill set: «I have interview skills, I have no trouble with public speaking, and I can think on my feet.» Strong currently holds the title of Miss Round Lake Area 2022.

Strong realized at a young age that in addition to competing in beauty pageants, she wanted to educate others about albinism.

Strong was able to meet others with the same condition after her mother added an albino photographer as a Facebook friend. Several of these people have shared their albinism stories on YouTube.

«I remember always wanting to do that after watching their movies,» Strong said. She currently has approximately 400,000 TikTok followers and an expanding Instagram presence.

Despite receiving insensitive comments about her condition, Strong maintains a positive attitude and seeks to educate others online rather than allowing negativity to affect her.

Strong was also subjected to the stigma of disability in school.

«Despite swimming with these women for four years, my swim team never spoke to me.

«The only difference I could think of was that I competed in a different category than they did,» Strong said, referring to the fact that she competed in the impaired group in high school.

«We have men’s and women’s categories. We normalize those two groups a lot, but we don’t normalize another category that exists for the same reason.

We must acknowledge that people with disabilities have the right to compete with their peers.»

Strong, as a college athlete, competes against able-bodied swimmers, proving that she is deserving of her position. «Able-bodied» people are those who do not have an illness, injury, or condition that makes it difficult for them to perform tasks that other people do.

Strong wishes to normalize disability as a result of her experiences. To her, education is critical; for example, few able-bodied people are aware that athletes in the Paralympics compete against others who have the same impairment to ensure fairness.

«Those meets will be more safe for us once we as a society are educated and able to recognize that people with disabilities have a place in the sporting world,» she said.

Strong also encourages able-bodied people to allow disabled people to have autonomy. She recalls how, unaware that Strong had been lifting for four years, her weightlifting coach discouraged her from participating in the sport due to her illness.

«If you want [disabled] people to be included, you must let them speak for themselves rather than deciding whether they deserve to be there,» Strong added.

Strong is now involved in a number of projects. She founded the organization VIDA (Visible Invisible Disability Advocates). For her literary society’s play, Strong chose the theme «Diversity Includes Disability,» which raises awareness of impairments, reduces stigma, and encourages accessibility.

Strong plans to read books about children with disabilities to students in her community as Miss Round Lake Area 2022 and to ensure that these stories are available in local libraries.

Strong struggles with the tension between wanting others to be aware of her disability and ensuring that her condition does not consume her entire life, despite the need for representation.

«I am known on campus as the girl with the stick, but I wish I was known as Kenzi,» Strong said. «I wish people remembered me for what I chose to do rather than what I didn’t.»

Strong plans to become a teacher after graduation, despite the widespread belief that blind people cannot do so.

«I’ll make plans for myself. I will not let my loss of vision prevent me from accomplishing my goals. «I realize that it is a part of who I am, but not all of who I am,» Strong added.

Strong’s ultimate professional objective is to lead the Special Education Department of a large school system.

During her first two years of high school, she lacked the required help and resources, and she now aspires to ensure that no other impaired student endures a similar situation.

“I want to be the person who prepares teachers to teach a child with a disability by speaking with them. Strong remarked, “I can speak from the heart about why it is so vital for every teacher to accommodate.”

Strong feels that society is making steady progress toward establishing a more inclusive world for persons with disabilities, and she intends to be a part of this transformation in the future.

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