In 1995, Heather Whitestone McCallum of Alabama, who is deaf, became the first Miss America with a disability. Since then, other women who have a disability have competed, but we’ve never seen a woman with a visual impairment compete for the crown. We will someday, and she may be representing North Dakota. That is, if Cylee Walton from Cavalier has her way. Cylee, who graduated from Cavalier Public School in May, recently competed for the Miss North Dakota crown in Williston. Cylee’s platform was “Embrace, Inspire, Normalize all,” which was inspired by her experience with a learning disability and her visual impairment. Cylee has nystagmus, which causes uncontrolled repetitive movements of the eyes. She was diagnosed with this condition at two months old, and while it greatly impacts her daily life, such as not being able to see the board at school or not being able to read a menu in a restaurant, she has begun to see how the struggles she has faced in life have enriched her life.
Throughout her education, Cylee was allowed certain accommodations to perform school tasks and to put her at a level playing field with her peers. Because her nystagmus makes focusing on words difficult, Cylee prefers to listen to books. Luckily, her visual impairment and learning disability qualified her for Bookshare, an online platform that allows its members to download textbooks and other reading materials for free in a variety of formats. Students can enlarge the text on an iPad or computer, listen to the books in an audio format, or read the books on a braille device. She used an iPad, which she received through a grant from the North Dakota School for the Blind Foundation, to see the board and access Bookshare. She was also allowed to take tests in a separate area away from her peers so that the questions could be read to her. These simple accommodations made a huge difference in her education, and she wants to share that with others. “I wanted to bring awareness so that everybody gets the education and the accommodations that they need,” Cylee says, which is why her Miss North Dakota platform became “Embrace, Inspire, Normalize all.”
“My whole life, I felt like I was the only person who felt left out of everything, including my education. I wanted to create this platform to encourage others, regardless of their disability, that they can succeed,” she explains. Whether it’s a “12-year-old who needs an IEP or a 26-year-old who wants to work” at a certain job, they can follow their dreams and be successful if they are just given a chance with the help of accommodations.
Cylee’s road to Miss North Dakota began in her tiny county in northeast North Dakota. The first year she competed for Miss Pembina County, she lost. But the second year, she took home the crown, and that gave her the confidence to compete in a larger competition, Miss Walsh County. When she won that title, she was eligible to compete in the Miss North Dakota 2024 competition, which was held in June 2023.
Cylee says the competition was the experience of a lifetime. “I can’t explain how much fun I had. I connected with so many girls,” she says, including her competitors, and even a few “Forever” Miss North Dakotas, who were there for the 75th anniversary of the competition. “I learned so much within that week about myself and how I can represent myself. I left the experience not with a crown but with fifteen best friends.”
Cylee’s talent was speed-painting, something she wasn’t even very familiar with when she decided to make it her talent. She wanted to somehow honor one of her heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and speed-painting allowed her to do this. While painting Bader Ginsburg – upside down in 90 seconds no less – Cylee told of Bader Ginsburg’s life and many accomplishments and how she has impacted Cylee’s own life. Cylee was proud of how the painting took shape. “I did so well onstage and spreading my message to others about Ruth Bader Ginsberg‘s life,” she says.
This fall, Cylee will begin her college career at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. She will be majoring in marketing. “In ten years, I foresee owning a couple of real estate properties while pursuing an insurance career,” Cylee says. She also hopes to compete again for the Miss North Dakota title, and this time take the crown. “The whole experience was something I never would have expected, but it went so much better than I ever could have imagined,” she says. The experience has given her the confidence to do it again, and she hopes she can inspire others to go for their dreams too. “Especially for those with visual impairments, it is a difficult road to realizing that your most significant complication is your biggest asset,” she says. But, “you’re going to feel one million times happier being yourself than something that you’re not. I would’ve done this the wrong way my whole life, but I’m at the stage where I realize that you can only be you.” Spoken like a true queen.