BU alumna wins autism leadership award

April 11, 2022

Courtesy of the Brandon Sun.

By Kyle Darbyson

Brandon University graduate Whitney Hodgins has been named the first recipient of the new Jim and Ginette Munson Autism Leadership Award, after spending years raising awareness for Manitobans with disabilities.

The 27-year-old formally received this award during the eighth annual Canadian Autism Leadership Summit, an event that is run by the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance (CASDA) and officially wrapped up on Tuesday.

A woman smiles

Whitney Hodgins

Because of the conference’s virtual format, Hodgins accepted her award through a pre-recorded interview with Jim and Ginette Munson, two people who have been pushing the federal government to adopt a national autism strategy for years.

Talking to the Sun on Tuesday afternoon, Hodgins said she is still slightly surprised by her selection, since the nomination process for this award was open to anyone in the country.

“It was quite a shock initially, but it’s definitely a huge honour that I’m humbled by.”

Hodgins was originally diagnosed with autism at the age of 14 and has used the intervening years to advocate for people with disabilities and for mental health needs more broadly.

A lot of this activism took root during Hodgins’ time at BU, where she served as the Brandon University Students’ Union accessibility director and even organized the school’s first accessibility week in 2018.

Because of all this work, which includes becoming a member of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities, Hodgins won a Future Leaders of Manitoba award in 2020 and began consulting with CASDA to advance their national autism strategy.

“I was part of their round-table discussions … and even when I ran for federal politics not so long ago, they asked me if I would pledge to a national autism strategy, which was a very enthusiastic ‘yes,’” she said, referencing her attempt to secure the Brandon-Souris riding for the NDP during last year’s election.

Jim Munson, the award’s namesake who also served as a Canadian senator until 2021, said Hodgins is very deserving of this honour based on her hands-on experience trying to fill societal gaps in terms of service provisions, employment equity and access to education.

“As such, she has become an exceptional activist — using her voice and her knowledge to push for autism acceptance, disability justice, and mental health initiatives across all levels of government,” Munson said in a Tuesday news release.

While Hodgins is currently studying human resources and labour relations at Athabasca University, her activism remains at the front of her mind.

Once she graduates from this program, Hodgins is hoping to find a job in human resources that will allow her to advance employment equity for people with disabilities on the ground level.

And now that the federal government has promised to develop and execute a national autism strategy, Hodgins is happy to see that a broader movement to codify these accessibility strategies into law is finally gaining traction in Canada.

“We’re still very much in the early stages of making this happen,” she said. “But I think with people like myself and other HR professionals and experts working behind the scenes … I don’t think it’s a big stretch to achieve that.”

» kdarbyson@brandonsun.com

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