This post will be different than my previous posts in that it will not feature shoes that I am presently wearing or that has been recently destroyed but a pair of shoes from my past.
The shoes pictured above are my graduation shoes. I wore them more than a few years ago and I do not remember what brand they were, how much they cost, or how many times I wore them. I do remember, however, is that my mom bought them for me. In the chaos of finishing classes, exams, and extracurricular obligations, I didn’t have time to go shopping, and I was completely out of shoes by the end of the school year. I remember being so grateful and relieved that my mom had found shoes that fit well, were comfortable, and that I liked.
(Mom, if you are reading this now and if, in my frenzied graduation haze, I did not adequately express my gratitude for this critical gift, I apologize. Thank you so much for buying me those shoes.)
What I remember most about those shoes was how I felt wearing them. I felt proud. Not just because I was graduating and concluding what had been 4 incredibly amazing and challenging years, but also because the moment that I walked up onto the graduation stage was a moment where my university demonstrated its commitment to inclusion.
Because of my involvement on campus, I had duties associated with the university’s commencement ceremony that involved me carrying a large, imposing metal staff. These duties were among some of the time honored rituals and traditions on campus. I was incredibly excited about all of this, to say the least. But, it should come as no surprise that time honored rituals and traditions aren’t usually designed to include people with disabilities. I realized that I couldn’t perform these historic duties without modifying the way they were done. There was no way I could carry the staff in the ceremonial manner without injuring myself and others or damaging this significant university symbol. When I initially approached the event organizers with my concern their response went something like this:
“Oh, we can just have someone else do it for you. You can still walk with them and be listed in the program, but someone else can do it. Maybe you can get a friend to do it. I’m sure they’d be honored and very happy to help.”
Unacceptable. If I had earned this honor, I would participate in it fully, like every other honoree had before me.
After a whole lot of self-advocacy, advocacy from staff at the Office of Disability Services, creativity from Campus Services, coordination with the commencement organizers, and support from university leadership, we agreed upon a solution. I also chose to keep the shoes of the man behind me in this picture because he had significant say in this matter that ultimately led to the moment captured here. The solution involved a modified walker that had been outfitted with the university insignia and a cradle for the staff. I could push the walker in the procession and onto the stage and then present the staff – No problem. A much more inclusive solution than what was originally suggested.
The picture above captured one of my first steps in the procession – a moment the result of a significant amount of energy, time, mindfulness, creativity, and, ultimately action dedicated to inclusion. Taking those steps, I felt a deep sense of pride and relief, and not just because my shoes were comfortable and looked nice, though that certainly didn’t hurt.
There is currently a petition circulating that calls for accessibility and inclusion to be among the metrics that comprise President Obama’s recently proposed performance measures to make college affordable. My experience at graduation was certainly not the first time I’d had to push to be fully included in university activities. Nor is it unlike the experience of many other students with disabilities across the country. If this petition receives 100,000 signatures, the White House is required to respond. The promotion of inclusion as a metric of success for colleges and universities will help to ensure access for students with disabilities, improve all students’ learning, and increase the diversity on campuses nationwide.
Join me in supporting students with disabilities by visiting the We the People website at http://wh.gov/l4KQR and sign the petition to include people with disabilities in higher education.