Winning takes many forms for Johnston’s Ashley Cabrita.
In February, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island during a ceremony at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston. She said since that moment, her reign has been “nothing but magical.”
She’ll look to build upon that success next week when she travels to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the 48th annual Ms. Wheelchair America National Competition.
Taking home a victory would be nice for Cabrita, but during a phone interview Monday morning, she spoke more of the journey that has gotten her to this point. She is grateful that her platform has allowed her to speak up for the disabled community.
“The feeling is mostly joy,” Cabrita said of reaching the national stage. “That is the best way I can describe it. I’ve advocated all my life, but to be able to have this platform to do it … is a joyous feeling for me, and I love meeting everyone from around our state. It’s great to meet new people and share stories.”
Cabrita said her road to Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island has been eye opening and fun. She has spinal muscular atrophy, but it’s never stopped her from making a difference. She works at Gingersnaps Bakery, but in her spare time she admits she spreads herself a bit thin participating in events that are impactful for the disabled community.
She also serves on committees for a few nonprofits. She noted her work with 401 A League of Our Own, a T-ball and softball league for those with special needs that just finished up its spring schedule last weekend. Cabrita said she was asked to come to Opening Day, and she was hooked ever since.
“When we bring more individuals together, we are truly heard and make a difference,” she said. “It’s empowering, inspiring. I think weekly I look at my planner and there’s things going on. I want to go to everything that I can.”
Cabrita has also used her reign to meet with several local dignitaries. She said that she is working toward her goal of meeting with the mayor or head administrator in every municipality. She has also met with Gov. Gina Raimondo and U.S. Reps. Jim Langevin and David Cicilline.
Her constant work is a means to amplify her message, and the community recognizes her dedication. Their kind words are greater than any title that could get bestowed upon her.
“To be this individual that other people look up to, that are coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you're doing. I love your message and I’ve seen you on social media’ – for me to be that individual, it truly inspires me and it’s hard to explain to people to that they’re my inspiration,” she said. “To hear that, it gives me more inspiration to want to spread advocacy more.”
Cabrita’s hectic schedule will prepare her well for the weeklong whirlwind in Arkansas. She and 22 other contestants will take part in a leadership conference featuring mentoring, workshops, platform speech presentations and an on-stage question-and-answer period, according to a Ms. Wheelchair America press release.
“These activities will provide each contestant with resources to become stronger disability advocates,” the release said. “It will also allow each contestant the opportunity to demonstrate how they have advocated, influenced or changed policies, or in some way made their voice be heard on issues impacting people with disabilities.”
The week will culminate with the Crowning Gala on July 6. Additionally, fans can pay $1 per vote to determine who receives the People’s Choice Award. Voting can be done at mwapeopleschoice.org/vote.
Cabrita said despite the national crown hanging in the balance, she prefers not to think of other participants as “competitors.”
“I’m going to make friends out of this,” she said. “No matter the outcome, I’m excited and beyond thankful for the opportunity.”
Cabrita was quick to point out that she didn’t get to this point by herself. She received a groundswell of support from her friends and family when it came time to raise her $2,000 entry fee for the national competition. She said they told her she didn’t even need to ask, and that they were on board to do whatever it takes.
Mike Murray and Bill Simas of Funny 4 Funds hosted an event with a set goal of $3,000. Cabrita said when Murray took the stage to present the check, he had a tear in his eye. They had raised $6,000, which was just another in a long line of victories for Cabrita.
“I wanted to cry myself, but I said, ‘Keep it together right now,’” she said, with a laugh.
Cabrita said she has never been to Arkansas, but has done some research as she prepares for her journey to continue at nationals. She has found information about coal mine tours and intense humidity, as well as the state’s famous catfish dishes.
She said she is excited for the journey, memorizing her speech for the event and reiterating how “surreal” it has been to win in Rhode Island and head to Arkansas. Between her winning attitude and Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island crown, Cabrita has been and continues to be a triumph and inspiration for the disabled community.
“I want to be a shoulder for someone to lean on when they feel low, and I truly want the community to understand that,” she said. “For me, it does not stop me. My wheelchair is simply my legs and it keeps me continuing on, and I can say thank you to everybody for allowing me to represent.”