A recent Iowa State University graduate who works as an advocate for students with disabilities at the University of Northern Iowa is now the state’s new spokesperson for people with disabilities.

Twenty-four-year-old Ashley Lerch was crowned the new Miss Wheelchair Iowa in a weekend ceremony in Iowa City. Lerch is an Anamosa native and says she’s thrilled to be chosen for the honor. "It’s really about disability awareness which is something that is near and dear to my heart and that I’ve been really involved with for several years," Lerch says. "I really wanted to become Ms. Wheelchair Iowa because I thought it would continue to help me on my goals of studying disability awareness as well as empowering people with disabilities to continue to work toward their goals and not let the disability dictate what they do."

Over the next year, she’ll travel the state, speaking to various civic organizations, church groups and schools, focusing on the abilities of people in wheelchairs. Lerch will also represent Iowa in the national Ms. Wheelchair America event, to be held in July in Maryland. Lerch works in U-N-I’s student disability services office, helping arrange appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities. As the new titleholder of Ms. Wheelchair Iowa, Lerch says she hopes to use her current skills to reach more young people on a statewide basis who may not recognize how many abilities they truly have. Lerch says, "They’ve been with Mom and Dad for their whole life and they don’t really know what they need to do to get the accommodations or to get the services that they need. I really would like to talk with students who are getting ready to transitition into that post-secondary (education) or into employment and to help them learn self-advocacy skills and to learn what they need to do to get those accommodations."

Lerch fell off a tractor when she was three-years-old and suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Among her accomplishments: becoming a state track champion in the 100- and 400-meter wheelchair events, winning "Outstanding Soloist" recognition for her trumpet playing, and earning a B-S degree from Iowa State in genetics and psychology in 2007.