Amidst the revelry at the fifth annual Special Needs Prom, held last Saturday at the Blaze Christian Fellowship off Rancho Viejo Boulevard, Irene Delgado sat poised. Crowned Ms. Wheelchair New Mexico in March, the Santa Fe resident graced the prom with her royal presence for the first time. At an event that celebrates difference rather than fearing or pitying it, Delgado tells SFR that she hopes her story shows others who might be different that they deserve the same treatment as everyone else.

"I want my platform to be called 'Every Disability Creates New Abilities,'" Delgado says, adding that the prom is a good example of what she wants to accomplish. "Lets have more events in the community for people not to be shy of who they are, and come out from behind their veils. In all reality, everybody's story could help somebody."

Royalty amidst a throng of people who were all crowned prom kings and queens that very day, Delgado is just another prom-goer here, but her impact could spread far beyond.

After the Ms. Wheelchair America competition in July, Delgado plans to head to the New Mexico Legislature to advocate for policies that will better serve the disabled.

"More handicap parking, especially more ramps," Delgado says of her top issues. "I feel like there's less ramps in this community. A lot of times when I was in the motorized wheelchair, I would have to go all the way around some places. Every facility should have at least two."

Delgado also advocates for more affordable driving schools for people with disabilities, an issue she has also personally struggled with. "I started to go to driving school, and it's $125 an hour," she says.

The fifth annual special needs prom had the biggest turnout yet
The fifth annual special needs prom had the biggest turnout yet

Since its inception in 1972, the pageant has steadily spread across the country, and Delgado is the first delegate from New Mexico. Contacted by a representative from the organization who hoped to get more states on board, Delgado, a full-time advocate, applied and was subsequently crowned. She plans to establish a state pageant after her reign ends next spring.

The competition isn't a standard beauty pageant, but rather "a recognition of free spirits" who just happen to be in wheelchairs. The contestants are judged on their accomplishments, not their physical appearances. Contestants will pit their interview, public speaking and Q&A skills against one another for the title.

Her trip won't be a vacation either: held in Little Rock, Arkansas, from July 1-7, the week will be chock full of leadership seminars and will last from 7 am to 9 pm.

But, just like everyone else, in order to make her mark, she's going to need a little help. The national Ms. Wheelchair event begins on July 1, and she needs cash to get there.

A $1,000 entry fee is required to compete in the national competition by June 1, and Delgado needs another $1,000 for travel and lodging costs. She's set up a GoFundMe, but has raised only $320 towards her goal. She's already put $1,000 towards the state competition, helped along by a sponsorship by Kia of Santa Fe.

It's just one more obstacle in a life that has been full of them. Delgado's spine was twisted in utero, and she's been in a wheelchair her whole life.  But that hasn't stopped her from advocating for disabled people, volunteering at wheelchair sports camps and helping out at homeless shelters.

"I was never really brought up around other people with disabilities," she says. "I was around pretty able-bodied people. Being around them, they treated me no different, so I came to treat myself that way as well, to be treated like anybody else. I joined cheerleading. I'm not afraid to go after what I want to do. And I want that for everyone else. To not be afraid. It took me a while to get my courage, to get that courage to go out.  Now that I'm outspoken and able to communicate more with the community, it feels good."