One Woman's Personal Journey to Becoming a Disability Rights Activist

By Kara Aiello
"Miss Philadelphia," Holly Harrar
As a writer for, I have had the honor of shining a light on amazing women who live with disabilities and are changing the focus of how we view the disabled community.  Holly Harrar, who is this year’s Miss Philadelphia and does not live with a disability, has taken on the role of advocate for those with disabilities and will make this her platform, as she sets her sights on progressing in the contest. 

Born in Sellersville, PA, 22-year-old Holly Harrar lived the first five years of her life in Lansdale and then moved to Pottstown in 2000 and, starting in first grade, attended school at Pottsgrove.  Miss Harrar is sandwiched between two awesome siblings, older brother Brandon who is 26, and younger sister Morgan who is 14. She also grew up with two very supportive and loving parents, Tom and Debbie.  Currently a senior at Shippensburg University where she is studying Communication/Journalism and concentrating on Electronic Media, she has taken on an impressive minor which is Disability Studies and is looking forward to graduating this May.  Upon graduation, Miss Harrar plans to prepare for Miss Pennsylvania at the end of June and has hopes of soon obtaining a job in the field of reporting/journalism to round out her life and all that she has worked to achieve.

Courtney, Holly's cousin
Miss Harrar’s passion for disability rights came from someone very close to her while she was growing up.  Her cousin Courtney was born with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and was diagnosed shortly after she was born.  Remembering her as a vivacious little girl with an infectious laugh and bubbly personality, Courtney stood out to those around her because she never let her disability stop her from doing the things that made her happy. “We went to school together, ran around her yard like ‘normal’ kids do and she lived her life ignorant of the things she would possibility not be able to do one day.” But Courtney lived with constant pain in her joints, and her fingers became increasingly misshaped, which made it hard for them to function properly.  When Courtney passed at the young age of 11, Miss Harrar, also 11, and her family, continued on with fond memories of her and a willingness to live in her legacy of perseverance.

Because of the deep relationship Miss Harrar had with her cousin Courtney, she has gained many insights regarding disability that she wants others to be aware of, as well. One insight she wants to pass on, is that not everyone with a disability is, in fact, entirely disabled.  “If the world stopped to acknowledge and recognize the disability community, they would probably be surprised to see the number of things people with disabilities are capable of doing.” And with a thoughtful response to the many gifts her cousin has given, Miss Harrar feels that Courtney’s teachings include that, although there will always be challenges that must be faced, it’s how we progress and move forward that defines us…with or without a disability.

Miss Harrar’s passion to become Miss Philadelphia go back to her childhood days when she and her mom would go to watch the Miss Pennsylvania pageant each year. “I remember when I was 13, I sat in the audience captivated by the poise, passion and talent of all the women that competed.”  But Miss Philadelphia, Kim Rogers, stood out to her the most.  “She was a tap dancer like me and had such an amazing presence and speaking ability that I couldn’t help but to emulate her.”  Since that moment, Miss Harrar would look for the Miss Philadelphia in the group and strive to embody some of their most admirable qualities.  “I chose to compete for Miss Philadelphia, not only to represent the city I love, earn a scholarship and practice my public speaking, but to be a role model to young girls like Miss Philadelphia always was to me.”

Miss Harrar goes on to say that she always enjoyed performing, speaking to people and promoting her cause, but this year she mustered up the courage to compete alongside women she knew would be very talented, qualified and ready to get to the next level: Miss Pennsylvania.  “I know that as long as I try my best and give it all I’ve got, I can’t go wrong.” So on February 27th at the Mandell Theater at Drexel University, her best was what they were looking for.  Standing hand-in-hand with 17 other beautiful, intelligent and confident young women, she thought, “Miss Philadelphia 2016 could be any one of us.” So when her name was called, her mouth flew open, hands covering her face while she laughed and cried at the same time. She looked up at her family, arms open in perplexity and mouthed, “What? What is going on?” That moment, she says, was priceless.

Looking ahead, Miss Harrar hopes that if she has the honor of getting to the next level of becoming Miss Pennsylvania, this will give her the opportunity to reach more people regarding her advocacy towards the disabled community.  “People living with disabilities, in Philadelphia alone, have trouble finding jobs and places to live.  This problem is a state and national issue that needs to be addressed.”  As Miss Pennsylvania and Miss America, Miss Harrar would speak to legislators and disability advocacy programs to develop a plan of action for the community.  “I have faith that people with disabilities will stand with me to make change and promote inclusion.” And Miss Harrar will be a great example that anyone can learn compassion for people different from themselves, and help bridge the gap of inclusion for all.

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