Young Women With Special Needs Celebrated in Pageant: 'Everyone Deserves to Be Queen for a Day'

Competitors between the ages of 13 and 30 took to the stage for the Miss Special Staten Island pageant.

Emma Duke’s big moment had finally arrived.

The 22-year-old had been practicing her dance, a traditional Nigerian "coming of age" routine, for a month. 

Duke smiled wide as the song began, and it wasn't long before the crowd at the Miss Special Staten Island pageant went wild. 

Off to the side of the stage, her family danced right along with her.

“I’m lost for words; I’m so excited," said her mom, Anyin. “We were chanting her on, encouraging her."

Duke was one of nine contestants participating in the inaugural event, which was dedicated to increasing inclusivity and empowering girls with special needs.

The pageant, which was held at the Staten Island Hilton Garden Inn hotel on July 8, was the brainchild of Karyn Turner, who first came up with the idea 45 years ago.

"Isn’t it kind of weird that disabled girls don’t have beauty pageants?" Turner remembered asking a friend. "And I’ve been waiting and waiting and it just never happened, so I figured now’s a great time to do it."

Crowned Miss Black Staten Island at 18 years old, Turner understood firsthand just how much representation mattered.

“I really want to expose the fact that we need more inclusivity,” Turner said.

With nine contestants between the ages of 13 and 30, each contestant had a moment to show the judges exactly what made her so special.

The event kicked off with a parade of contestant introductions, followed by a group dance. The young women then showcased their individual talents, along with their poise and presence in an evening wear segment.

The pageant wasn’t just a big deal for the contestants.

"It’s a very big day," contestant Emma Efrosman’s mom, Rachel, told "People don’t acknowledge special needs children. They think that they can't do what a typical child can do. But they can."

She added: “I’m so emotional right now. I’ll probably be crying. For her as you can see, she’s not. She’s ready to go."

Efrosman's "never quit" attitude is shared by each of the Miss Special Staten Island contestants.

"When things get hard, she keeps trying," Rachel said. "For a special needs child, it’s not that easy to get up on the stage and dance by herself, but she’s doing it."

Before the contestants showed off their talents, the judges met with each girl to ask why they chose to compete.

One girl's response really stood out for judge Gracelyn Santos.

“One of the answers that really touched my heart was a young lady who said that she’s here to show the world, not just Staten Island, that they can do anything that they want," Santos told the crowd. "All they need is to have family and friends who support them."

That contestant, 29-year-old Vernel Black, has autism and was nonverbal until she was 8 years old. She turned to the arts, specifically photography, as a method of communication, she told

"I was used to expressing myself through drawing, pictures, pointing," Black said.

Having graduated with a degree in photography and a minor in photojournalism from Marymount Manhattan College, Black hopes her work would show people that those with special needs can achieve anything they want.

“In the eyes of society, people with special needs are not capable of anything,” Black said. “I would like to prove them wrong through my eyes, through my talent.”

Black presented a collection of her photographs to the judges, one by one.

Other girls showed off their talents with cheerleading and hula hoop routines, drumming, singing and dancing.

In the end, it was Duke who was proclaimed the winner. The achievement came as no surprise to her proud parents, who had praise for all the competitors.

“I came to have a different perspective of life and really appreciate what everybody is capable of doing," said Emmanuel, Duke’s father.

While Duke walked away with the Miss Special Staten Island crown, the day was a success for all involved, including Turner, who beamed as each contestant left with a trophy, sash and crown of their own. 

"I just feel that everyone deserves to be queen for a day," Turner said. "That should’ve happened a long time ago."