Miss Wheelchair Rhode Island Autumn Johnson was the guest speaker at Towards an Anti-Racist North Kingstown’s (TANK) first speaking series on Monday, November 27 at the North Kingstown Free Library. Autumn’s one-hour discussion focused on navigating public schools, job interviews, and relationships with a disability.
Born with Spina Bifida, Autumn is an advocate, mentor, student, and beauty queen. Her close Narragansett Indian Tribe community and many interested listeners applauded Autumn’s words and some even shed a tear. The full moon cast the spell for an emotional evening.
Autumn spent her freshman and sophomore years at North Kingstown High School (NKHS), a school where she spoke about feeling discriminated against for her “disability and the color of her skin.” Autumn found her place at Narragansett High School, where she graduated in 2018. "Graduating from high school was the first time I felt pride for my own accomplishments," Autumn told the crowd of approximately 20 people.
Autumn enjoys spending time in North Kingstown now and has another town distinction; she was the grand marshal of the first TANK Pride Parade, an event that was “exciting and important” to Autumn. As she proudly led the parade, she thought of how much it meant to feel embraced in a town where she has not always felt welcome.
Crowned on January 21, 2023, Autumn’s Miss Wheelchair platform has been to spread a message of love and inclusion. Her advocacy project is working on better beach accessibility for people with disabilities. Autumn adores spending time in the ocean and finds the water therapeutic for her many pains. But it’s not easy for her and a caregiver (or two) to access many Rhode Island beaches. Better beach access is an issue she hopes to works towards improving.
“Better beach accessibility for people using wheelchairs would make our ocean experiences enjoyable and would help our caregivers worry less about getting us on and off the beach.” As a Narragansett Indian, Autumn thinks beaches should be accessible to all and just wants to enjoy the ocean like everyone else.
This summer, Autumn took her first plane ride to compete in the Miss Wheelchair America Pageant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She and her mother fundraised to get there and her fellow Narragansett Tribe members ultimately financed the trip. Autumn did not bring home the crown, but she found something much more valuable: a renewed sense of mentoring and advocacy and a kinship with her fellow "wheel sisters."
“I conquered many fears on my journey to the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant. A big one of my fears was traveling by plane with a disability! I am proud to say I conquered this fear while also learning how to advocate for my needs while getting on and off the flights. I was determined to represent Rhode Island, my indigenous community, and the younger generation that looks up to me.”
North Kingstown School Committee member and TANK co-founder Jennifer Lima thought of Autumn right away when planning TANKS’s first speaking engagement. Jennifer and Autumn share a zeal for advocacy and believe that every child needs to feel included in their school community. Autumn spoke about the importance of DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) and echoed many of Jennifer's introduction statements about the "importance of being heard."
Jennifer said, “Autumn talked about how when she was growing up, she wished that she had been surrounded by a diverse group of people, that she had equitable access to opportunities, and that she was included in the school community. But most of all...she wished that she was made to feel like she belonged. You can have all the policies and practices in the world, but if you don't make people feel like they belong, it's not going to make a difference. TANK hopes that by having these conversations, we can work on that sense of belonging for all of our residents.”
Autumn’s favorite part of being Miss Wheelchair Rhode Island is her mentoring relationship with Victoria, Little Miss Wheelchair RI 2023. Autumn and Victoria both have Spina Bifida and navigate the world on wheels. "Mentoring the next generation of those with different abilities is important to me as a person with Spina Bifida. I tell Victoria that she deserves to feel empowered and reminded that her voice has power.” The duo worked together to represent Rhode Island at parades, the 401 League Of Our Own luncheon, and many other official engagements. They also squeezed in some dancing at the Ed Sheeran/John Mayer concert at Gillette Stadium.
Now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in organizational and leadership change at College Unbound, Autumn hopes to become a social worker upon graduation. Autumn is also on the Rhode Island Parent Information Network (RIPIN) board. She is looking for employment but until then, she is making money in the beauty industry with her own business project called Beauty by Rain.
TANK’s mission is to work to move North Kingstown forward as a community that acknowledges its history, celebrates its potential, and fosters a climate honoring and encouraging diversity, equity and the unique character of all its residents through anti-racist policy reform, education and advocacy, and by working for justice and to combat all forms of discrimination.
TANKS's 2024 We Are ALL Readers book festival is at North Kingstown High School on April 6, 2024. We Are ALL Readers is a celebration of diverse children’s books, creators, and readers. We hold an in-person festival featuring authors and illustrators, with talks, book signings, and empowering hands-on activities for kids. In addition, we also host StoryWalks and reading challenges at public libraries.