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Mar 31, 2014

Celebrating Differences: Linking Disability, Diversity and Excellence

Mar. 25, 2014
Wilson Hall Auditorium
President Jonathan R. Alger
Disability Awareness Week 2014

In introducing the importance of President Jonathan Alger’s upcoming speech linking disability, diversity and excellence, Randy Mitchell, associate vice president for Student Success, told the audience a story about his daughter. Frustrated with him at one point, she grabbed his face with her tiny hands and said, “Listen very loud!” This phrase has stuck with him, he said, as he encouraged others to “listen very loud” to the president’s words. “Disabilities have shaped [people’s] interactions with the world,” Mitchell explained, “but they have not defined them.”

Speaking during JMU’s Disability Awareness Week 2014, Alger opened the discussion by saying, “I love this week’s theme of celebrating differences. Here at JMU, diversity is our greatest strategic resource.”

Having spent much of his career advocating for the educational benefits of diversity, Alger shared his disappointment that disabilities are so often hidden or invisible. When he worked at the U.S. Department of Civil Rights, he witnessed first hand that one of the biggest issues the department and the nation faced was creating enhanced accessibility for individuals with disabilities. The best way to counter this, he explained, is with open and honest education.

“Our work must shine a light on all forms of disability in a positive way,” he said. “JMU must be a place where differences are welcomed and embraced. Our community is more interesting and robust because of each individual person here.”

As the president has debated issues of diversity, even as far as the Supreme Court level, he has advocated that “diversity and excellence go hand in hand.” Because of this, diversity is a feature of JMU’s new strategic plan and new mission statement. The plan starts with a new vision, which involves an “engaged university” that is engaged with ideas and learning, the community, and civic duty. Diversity fits into all three kinds of engagement, he explained.

The first involves high-impact learning practices that aren’t passive, but active. “By identifying various kinds of accommodations for individuals with disabilities, we’ve discovered new ways of teaching and learning,” he said. Second, it involves applying our knowledge with community partnerships. Alger spoke of teams of JMU engineers who designed a special bicycle for a student with cerebral palsy, and the Axis Dance Company’s visit, which demonstrated that “beauty and performance are for everyone.” And, third, it involves understanding and using the levers of public policy. Citing JMU’s CAMMO Project (Creating Accessible Materials in Microsoft Office), the accessibility buttons on almost every JMU webpage, and an online forum designed for people to report any barriers to accessibility they see at JMU, Alger described that while we are required to “comply with the law, we can also create new tools.”

“These are educational imperatives,” he explained. “It’s not just about compliance, but building communities. The work is never done.”

Hitting close to home with JMU students and faculty, the president encouraged the audience to consider JMU’s “Open Doors” mantra as related to accessibility for all individuals.

“I expect JMU to be a place where disabilities are acknowledged, but where we go beyond that phase and see everyone for who they are. People are not defined by their ability or disability,” he reminded the audience. “I also expect JMU to espouse a culture of change where we feel proud to share our challenges and not hold back for fear of stigma.”

Valerie Schoolcraft, director of the Office of Disability Services, spoke of the first time she met the president. Thanking him at the end of the event, she said, “You shook my hand and told me how important this work is. I appreciated it so much.”

Alger ended his presentation with a challenge. “Tonight, I challenge each member of the JMU community to seek out awareness and to take necessary actions,” he concluded. “We need to overcome the limitations and barriers of today to anticipate and address the needs of tomorrow.”

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March 25, 2014
By Rosemary Girard (’15)