A 24-year-old woman who was paralyzed in a farm accident as a girl is representing Iowa in the Ms. Wheelchair America competition, underway through Saturday in Maryland. Ashley Lerch is an Anamosa native who works as an advocate for students with disabilities at the University of Northern Iowa.

Lerch is taking part in the national event after being crowned Miss Wheelchair Iowa in April. Lerch says, "I’m excited about meeting all the other people and getting all that networking done, but of course I’m also nervous with all of the interviews and the speeches and all that will be going on as well."

Her platform at the national contest revolves around her work at U-N-I, helping students with disabilities make the sometimes-difficult transition from high school to college, and go on to successful careers. "There’s a lot of stuff that comes with being an adult. There’s a lot of laws that change and that really these students need to be prepared for when they get to college," Lerch says. "They need to advocate for themselves and to understand their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Should Lerch win the national title at Saturday night’s final event, she doesn’t think her life would change too drastically. She says her schedule would certainly get busier, but she adds: "I really don’t think that it’s going to change too much. I’m still going to be promoting disability awareness. I’m still going to be working, helping students with disabilities. I see it as another stepping stone that can really help me promote even further, outside of Iowa."

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 in genetics and psychology from Iowa State University in 2007.