Community Stories

What a Difference People Make

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What a Difference People Make.
I have a long and winding story that lives mostly in my heart and a vast collection of mental images. I could never do justice to those heart-stories or the mental photographic album with inadequate words. And yet I shall try.

The Closed Door
This is the inside of a rich dark wood door. There is a natural character in the grain of this wood door that one can almost smell. This image holds the rhetoric of something important and powerful that happens within this closed room. This door, captured in the early 2000’s was owned by an administrator. The picture is of the inside because the administrator was creating a closed meeting with the two of us. I was there to propose that students with intellectual disability be admitted to the university and the administrator was there to tell me, behind that beautiful door, that the university “would not become the disabled university”. On the day of this picture something powerful and important did happen within this closed room. As a non-tenured professor, I understood that the difference to be made was no difference at all.

The Infirmary
This is a picture of a fancy executive meeting room in about 2006. It has a dozen leather chairs and three people sitting around the oval shaped table. The chair at the table’s head is large and also vacant. There are a few scraps of paper and a dozen spent coffee cups waiting to be cleaned up. The three people at the table look as though they are still waiting for the meeting to begin. The sort of look that tells of disbelief, rejection, or incredulity. This picture holds the odor of an institutional infirmary because of my emotional memory. We had just been told that students with intellectual disability may be able to attend the university but first we would need permission from the nurses at the infirmary. We walked away from that meeting and the aspiration of opening an inclusive postsecondary curriculum for students with intellectual disability. What a difference one person with a hidden misunderstanding can make.

The Lunch
This is a picture of two professors and one university President having lunch in the faculty dining restaurant. The year is 2014. The lighting is a little low which makes for a dark picture but a warm setting for this impromptu lunch. The President, who joined uninvited, is talking and the professors sit attentively with knowing affixed grins as they aspire to a promise they had earlier dispensed with. The President is talking about the value of students with intellectual disability being admitted to the university. The professors leave that lunch with action items for a new curriculum. What a difference one unsuspecting leader with a vision can make.

The Walk Across Campus
This is a picture of an older bearded professor swiftly walking across a campus on a summer day. There are red brick buildings and swans in the background near a pond. It is hot that day as can be seen in the glistening beads of sweat on the professor’s forehead. The professor carries papers. An expression of triumph is evident on his face and in his high step. If you look closely, you will see, through a window, an open door in the admissions office where an admission code was created. What a difference one knowledgeable, practical, and justice oriented systems gatekeeper can make.

The Office Meeting
This is a picture of a professor’s office. There is a small table with three people sitting around it. Behind and all around are old scarred wooden bookshelves overstocked with books. One young man, his mother, and a professor sit and laugh. The professor had just handed the young man a university application in response to the mother’s request to please tell her son that admission to the university was not a possibility. The young man has the look of a winner who just won a long-term argument with a loved one. What an incredible difference a person with a strong clear goal can make.

The Coffee & Bagels Moment
This is a picture of an urban bagel shop. Two people sit with coffee and bagels on the table. There is one man and one woman at the table. They are surrounded by a typical pre-COVID-19 scene. People at other near-by tables and others standing around chatting. There is a long line of customers waiting their morning treat. The man and woman appear to respect each other and there is something uneasy about their posture. A scrap of paper on the table in front of the man has “legacy” written in red with a black circle drawn around it. There are lines coming off that circle. One line has a large red heart drawn on it. Another line has the word compromise written in green. At the bottom of the page, underlined and highlighted is the word inclusion. It is clear the man has chosen to build a legacy of inclusion and rejected the politics of compromise. What a difference one conversation and two people can make in the future

The Graduation
This is a picture of a commencement review stand. There is a young man dressed in graduate regalia standing at the head podium. Behind this young man are 20 or so people all dressed in their best higher education traditional garb. This is the same young man in the Office Meeting photograph. The sign-language interpreter standing on stage is giving the sign for hope. The young man is pointing at the audience. He shouted out “don’t ever give up hope!”. What a difference one person can make in a moment that informs the future.

There are many points and more lessons in those well framed mental pictures. One lesson is more than tongue can tell and vibrantly lives in my heart. I leave that one for the reader to interpret. The other lesson is a practical lesson. When making change, waiting to or working toward “getting your swans in a row” can only result in a long line to nowhere. Too many questions can only be answered by knowing people, meeting most pressing individual needs, and having policy serve people not people serving policy. In short, the story I have to tell is to do it now, do it with moral coherency and pay attention to the difference people can make.

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