Learning to Lead

From Ms. Wheelchair America to the Roll on Capitol Hill, Autumn Grant Continually Looks for Opportunities to Grow as a Mentor and Advocate

autumn-grant-headshotIn her career as an academic advisor and disability service coordinator, Autumn Grant has often come across college students who remind her of how she was and where she has been. Not lost souls or know-it-alls, just people trying to figure out the best way to deal with the obstacles in front of them and keep moving forward.

“There have definitely been times where a student walked into disability services and I was like, I was that student,” she says. “You just want to tell them, this is what you need to know.”

That urge to help others has helped Grant, 38, find herself as a mentor and a leader, both in and out of the disability community. In addition to her professional work, Grant has worked to integrate mentoring into the Ms. Wheelchair America program and has advocated at both the local and federal level for the importance of mentoring. Last year, Grant was one of over 50 members to take part in United Spinal’s first Roll on Capitol Hill. This June, she will be helping others find their voices as one of the team leaders when United Spinal returns to the Hill.

Friend and colleague Ann Eubank, United Spinal’s vice president for community initiatives, marvels at how easy Grant makes connecting look.

“She is so graceful and she has tremendous influence,” says Eubank. “She can motivate people and she can emote in a unique way – a way that that is almost intrinsic.”

While Grant may make it seem like second nature, she says her polish is the product of years of honing her skills.

Embracing ‘Sisterhood’

Grant was diagnosed with limb girdle muscular dystrophy at age 10. Despite having no role models, she found her own way to secure undergraduate and graduate degrees and a career in college administration.

Working in and near disability services, Grant was often connected with students with disabilities, but as a self-professed introvert, she sometimes struggled to find the right tone for a mentor-mentee relationship. “I just wanted
to tell them, this is what you need to know, but I was holding that back a little bit,” she says. “When I first was involved, because it was more like my job, it felt more professional and I think I was more restrictive about what I shared about myself.”

Working with students inspired her to open up some, but she didn’t find her comfort zone until she took part in Ms. Wheelchair America via the Massachusetts qualifier in 2006. “I never really had a mentor or knew many people who used wheelchairs, so going to the event really opened up my eyes to everything that was out there,” she says. Running on a platform of “Independence through Education,” Grant was named Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts. She went on win Ms. Wheelchair America 2007.

grant-ms-wheelchair-pageant

Grant displays leadership skills and bonds with other women with disabilities at the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant.

The title gave her a platform for advocacy and opportunities to travel, but equally importantly,
her participation brought her into a “sisterhood” unlike any she had been a part of. “It all felt like home,” she says. “I always know there’s somebody that I can start having conversations with and they’re not going to look at me like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ … It’s not that everybody who uses a wheelchair is the same, but being able to talk about these things and have somebody who has been through similar things and can talk about it was very eye-opening.”

Mentoring and Advocacy: A Reinforcing Cycle

grant-background-in-mentoring-helped-advocacy
Grant found that her background in mentoring enriched her perspective and ability to advocate for other wheelchair users during last year’s Roll on Capitol Hill.

With her title in hand, Grant increased her outreach efforts. She joined her city’s council on disability, met with the governor’s commission on disability and recommitted to the Ms. Wheelchair America program, taking on the coordinator position for Massachusetts. She found her advocacy went hand-in-hand with mentoring.

“Beforehand my advocacy was probably a little more personal, a little more related to me, but after that it became a lot deeper and broader. As I started learning what people were going through, and the situations they were having, I wanted to do whatever I could to help them out.”

The relationships she developed through Ms. Wheelchair America also helped Grant broaden her approach to mentoring.

“Over time, I realized you can give some personal
information and it can still be a professional relationship,” she says. “I’ve learned what the limits and the borders are and I think when I first started I boxed myself in a little bit. And now I’ve opened myself up a little bit but understand that there is a line and you can only go so far before you cross.”

As one of the organizers of the 2013 Ms. Wheelchair America pageant, Grant helped inspire the creation of a peer mentoring group called “Changed for Good.” With a name borrowed from the popular musical, Wicked, the group connects titleholders and encourages them to motivate each other and work together to achieve common goals.

Eubank works with the group too and has only grown more impressed working with Grant.

“She doesn’t have to yell and scream and be loud — she has a presence— even the way she sits,” says Eubank. “When she comes in a room, people notice.”

Grant used that presence as a consumer advocate on a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in 2011, and returned last year with United Spinal. Meeting with legislators and their representatives slightly overwhelmed Grant on her first trip, but she was confident on her second trip and is looking forward to imparting that confidence as a team leader at this June’s Roll on Capitol Hill.

“The most important thing is for people to become comfortable with what they’re talking about – to be comfortable with the issues they’re coming forward with,” she says. “Your personal story is important and you need to stand out” for the people you meet with.

Grant is excited about the opportunity to help others experience the same sense of excitement and reward that she receives from her work.

“The experience is just so empowering,” she says. “Having the opportunity to speak with these people that have access to the people who run our country and to have your voice heard is exhilarating.”