July 9, 2012 -- When Connor Boss looks out into the crowd this Saturday as she competes in the Miss Florida USA pageant, she will see audience members only as a blur.
Boss is the pageant's first legally blind contestant. At age 8, she was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a genetic disorder that causes progressive vision loss. Now 18 and soon to be a freshman at Florida State University, Boss prefers that her blindness be kept under wraps, her mother Traci Boss said.
"She doesn't want to be judged on that," Traci Boss said. "She doesn't want a sympathy vote or a pity vote. She wants to show people that she could do what anyone else does."
When glasses failed to improve Connor's deteriorating eyesight, her parents said they knew their daughter was facing an unusual challenge.
Connor still has peripheral vision, but she cannot read anything smaller than 36-point font. Throughout middle and high school, she read enlarged textbooks and had her exams read aloud to her. She struggles to make eye contact and occasionally finds herself in men's bathrooms.
At last year's Miss Florida USA contest, in which she won second runner-up in the teen category, her poor depth perception caused her to stumble on the stairs leading up to the stage during the swimsuit segment.
But beauty pageants have been a source of confidence for Connor, her mother said. At age 16, after she won the Harvest Queen pageant in Belle Glade, Fla., Connor began exercising and eating better, and before long, she entered the Miss Florida USA contest — all without knowing for sure what she looked like.
Her biggest strength in the pageants is public speaking, Traci Boss said, in part because of the ease with which she can pretend she is speaking to herself.
Connor, who earned a 4.2 grade-point average and served as class president in high school, will not be getting any special treatment from Miss Florida USA, said pageant director Mary Lou Gravitt. The pageant has seen contestants with disabilities in the past, including speech impediments and hearing problems, Gravitt said, adding that overcoming such challenges is a "part of pageantry."
While Connor was losing her vision, though, she may have gained something else. According to Traci Boss, Connor's brain functions have heightened in response to her condition, especially her memory.
"Anything you tell her, she remembers. When she's in a lecture she remembers everything her professor said for years," Traci Boss said.
If she brings home the Miss Florida USA crown Saturday, Connor will represent the state in the Miss USA national beauty pageant.
Traci Boss said she hopes that as her daughter's story attracts attention, it will reach others with disabilities and encourage them to confront challenges.
"You hear about people who have disabilities who choose to stay home, but if they find one person who puts herself out there, they might do the same," she said.