When Madeline Irwin steps onstage to compete for the Miss Washington USA title, she won’t just be standing up for herself.
The 22-year-old college student was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (known as AMC), which is a congenital joint contracture in two or more areas of the body. Irwin, who is unable to fully straighten her arms, hands, fingers and one leg, and has severe scoliosis as a result of AMC, hopes to use her pageant platform to help others.
“I knew I wanted to someday advocate for people with physical disabilities like myself,” the Port Angeles, Washington native tells PEOPLE of her decision to enter her first pageant. “The only issue was that I wasn’t ready for a while because I had a long way to go to accepting and loving myself. So I worked really hard with self reflection and using social media and surrounding myself with people who had morals and values like I do, I finally reached a point where I felt confident enough to share my journey about accepting yourself as you are.”
Irwin – who if she wins her state competition on November 5, will go on to represent Washington in next year’s Miss USA pageant – also wants to be a role model for children.
“The challenges I faced mostly, and what I’m advocating for now, is that there was no representation for someone like me that I could look up to growing up,” she says. “So it was really difficult to know, as someone who is disabled, who I can be and what I can do because I wasn’t able to see that around me.”
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She continues: “There is a pretty strong stigma around the word ‘disability,’ a negative stigma. People think of ‘disability’ and they think of someone who needs to be pitied, and so I felt like growing up I didn’t want to be associated with that for a long time, until I could use the word ‘disabled’ to empower myself so that’s what I’m doing now.”
Irwin’s drive also led her to follow her childhood passion for the piano. “I played behind closed doors for a really long time because of my AMC,” says the Washington State University, Vancouver junior. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough because my hands weren’t able to play like everyone else.”
Now, she’s avid pianist thanks to hard work and an encouraging teacher. “[My piano teacher] would teach me different ways to play if I wasn’t able to do it as it was written, but still make it sound good,” says Irwin. “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I’m very proud of myself for doing that.”
And she’s taking that positive outlook to the stage. “[Due to AMC], I’m unable to wear heels for the pageant which is a bummer,” says Irwin. “But I found some really cute shoes.”