30 Days of Thanks Day 19 – Nina and John

As an undergraduate student, I lived on campus during the summer between my junior and senior year at The College of Saint Rose. One of my jobs was to work in the late afternoon and early evening at the information desk in the Campus Center.

On a Wednesday evening in early June, I noticed two women putting up photos on a bulletin board. I watched as they laughed, pointing out photos and talking about times gone by. Eventually I went over to them to ask what they were doing. That was when I met Nina.

Nina and her friend Midge were volunteers from the Schenectady Chapter of The College of Saint Rose Alumni Association. Each year prior to Reunion Weekend, they prepare memory displays on the Campus Center bulletin boards. They photocopy yearbook photos and paste them onto posters which are hung for everyone to see as they gather with their classmates.

My first encounter with Nina and Midge happened back in 1994. They are still involved with the Alumni Association and still volunteer regularly with their Chapter.

Nina was Secretary when I was first appointed to the Alumni Association Board of Directors. She continued to serve on the Board as a representative of the Schenectady Chapter when I eventually became Secretary. We saw each other regularly at events and gradually struck up a friendship.

Working together on committees, I learned from her experience and example. Nina recognized the value of tradition, while embracing new ideas to engage younger alumni. She made sure everyone had the opportunity to share opinions and carefully considered all points of view.

I met Nina’s husband John at an Alumni Association event, but I don’t remember which one. When you have been volunteering with an organization for a decade, things begin to blur. Did that happen at Reunion or at a naming ceremony? Did I see you at the concert in the new recital hall or at the art show?

Nina and John’s son Jeff and I were both students at St. Rose at the same time. And since Nina is also a graduate of St. Rose we have a shared community which gives us a solid base for our friendship.

Nina is a font of information and historical perspective. When I was President of the Alumni Association, I relied on her insight and knowledge many times. Often, when someone asked if there was a precedent, I would point them in Nina’s direction. I knew if she didn’t have the answer, she would know how to get the answer.

Last year I attended an alumni holiday party with Nina and John. As we shared our cocktails before dinner, I excitedly told them about my upcoming trip to Australia. They asked about my preparations and offered to help. I thanked them for the offer, never expecting their gift would come within the week.

Denise – here’s a little something. Have a great time!

Nina and John – your “little something” was THE donation which helped me reach my minimum goal. Your gift made it possible for me to purchase my personal assistant’s airfare before the ticket sale ended. Your donation made me realize the trip was definitely going to happen.

When you are asking others for financial assistance to help you fulfill a dream, you can never predict how long it will take to raise the money or how many people will support you. Nina and John were the people who served as the tipping point in my fundraising. Their gift was not the largest I received. But the impact of that gift changed how I thought about the trip.

Nina and John, thank you for believing in my story enough to help me tell share it with a larger audience. I appreciate your support and I am grateful for our friendship. I can’t wait to show you some photos when we see each other at this year’s party!

30 Days of Thanks Day 9 – Laurie

I met my friend Laurie on the first day of her freshman year at The College of Saint Rose. I was volunteering as a new student orientation leader and Laurie was moving into the freshman dorm, Lima Hall. My friends Erin and Stacey were also moving in that day and I remember talking with Laurie as I waited for the elevator.

The start of a new school year is exciting for people like me who are “joiners.” We look forward to new faces, and learning more about them. We like the social activities and mixers designed to get everyone interacting. By far, one of the best experiences each year was the leadership weekend at Silver Bay on Lake George. The weekend, now called The Fall Classic, was a chance to relax at this beautiful conference and retreat center in the Adirondacks. There were workshops and teambuilding activities for the students, staff, administrators and alumni who participated.

Laurie and I bonded one weekend at Silver Bay. I remember sitting with her on the porch of The Inn, looking over a blue lake framed by fall foliage. We were talking about becoming involved at school and Laurie asked me why I was involved with the Student Events Board (SEB) but not the Student Association (the student government group). The answer was easy – I was more interested in the group which planned social events! I wanted to be involved with activities and fun, not student government. I don’t know if the talked influenced Laurie, but she joined SEB.

One of Laurie’s classmates was a budding comedian, working on material for his first gig. Since St. Rose is a small school, we all knew Jimmy. Many knew of his dream to make it to Saturday Night Live. Laurie and my friend David offered Jimmy the opportunity to perform on campus in the auditorium in St. Joseph’s Hall. That is how most of us watched Jimmy Fallon perform stand-up for the first time. Thank you Laurie and David for helping push Jimmy out into bigger and better things.

Laurie was always a friendly face I could count on whenever I needed assistance. I was still using a manual wheelchair then and sometimes ran into obstacles or difficulties around campus. Whenever this happened, I always tried to find someone who would help me without complaining. More than once, Laurie helped me grab a drink in the dining hall or held the door as I balanced books on my lap.

I have seen Laurie a few times since graduation at alumni events. When we are together, the conversation remains easy and natural, just as it always was when we were students. Our shared experiences and memories give us a common ground to come back to, even if it is years between visits.

These days, we maintain contact on social media. Through our connection, I’ve been able to watch Laurie’s athletic accomplishments. From a distance, I have cheered as she reached milestones. Laurie has completed 33 half marathons, 7 full marathons, and 2 50ks. I am inspired by her drive. People often talk about my accomplishments as remarkable, but really – these numbers astound me. Maybe it’s because my own body prevents me from completing physical tasks. Maybe it’s because I recognize the sacrifices and determination required to complete a multi-step goal. Maybe it is a bit of both. Either way, kudos to you Laurie!

When I announced I had been invited to return to Australia, Laurie was one of the first friends to offer assistance. Thank you Laurie for always being reliable and honest. We may not see each other every day as we did when we were students, but I know whenever we do get together we will share many smiles.

Color photo of a woman in running gear pointing to a black and white photo of an out of shape woman.
Laurie pointing to a photo of her back taken in 2010.

The ADA @ 25: The Work Isn’t Over

This past Friday night, local disability organizations and the Self Advocacy Alliance gathered for a celebration and concert in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I was honored to be invited to attend the event and speak about the ADA prior to the band taking the stage. If you have ever been invited to speak before the entertainment at an event, you know the audience is really just being polite as they wait to listen to the music.

Friday night’s audience was wonderful. They were attentive, engaged and even applauded some key points! Someone asked if I would share my remarks on my blog. I usually don’t write out my speeches word for word, so the version I present is always a bit different than my notes. I’m not sure I said everything I wanted to say on Friday, but this is my best attempt to write down what I intended to say on Friday.

Communities across the United States are having ADA celebrations this month. Today is the first ever Disability Pride Parade in New York City. I wish I could be there with my friends who are traveling down the Hudson right now, but my recent wheelchair repairs made the trip impractical. I urge you to find out what is happening in your area, and learn more about what you can do to help further the vision of civil rights for people of all abilities.

The organizers of today’s event asked me to say a few words in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. This important civil rights legislation, which was signed into law in 1990 by former President George Bush, changed life for people with disabilities in many ways. Improvements in everyday life are all around us.

This park we are in has accessible parking, curb cuts, and accessible rest rooms. There is a ramp on the back of this stage which made it possible for me to wheel up here.

Many of us used public transportation to get here today – buses with lifts or paratransit. If you travel to another metropolitan area in the United States, their buses will be accessible too. Within the past decade, I have visited Little Rock, Arkansas; Salt Lake City,Utah; Ames, Iowa; Long Beach, California; and Tampa, Florida. I was able to ride public buses in each location.

When I was in those cities, I stayed in hotels. All of the hotels were relatively new construction, built within the past 15 years or so. My hotel rooms had elevated toilets, grab bars, hand held showers, and strobe lights which flashed if someone rang the doorbell.

Access to technology has improved life for many of us who live with disabilities. Closed captioning for television programs, and live captioning Internet broadcasts or webinars mean the Deaf or hearing impaired can participate. Cell phones and texting put communication with others right in our own hands. Braille elevator key pads and ATMs with audible signals increase independence for the Blind and visually impaired.

I first came to Albany in 1991 when I started college at The College of St. Rose. I learned how to be an advocate while I was in college. The ADA was new – and it was widely thought this law would change the world for people with disabilities. We would have protections and legal recourse if we faced discrimination! Reasonable accommodation became the new buzz phrase for us.

I studied Communication Sciences and Disorders because I had decided I wanted to be a speech-language pathologist when I grew up. When I started college, the school had four residence halls which were accessible. The only buildings with automatic doors were the Campus Center and Albertus Hall, the main classroom building. We used the service elevator in the kitchen to get to and from the main dining hall. And the elevator in St. Joseph’s Hall, where the majority of professor offices were, had a gate you had to close before the elevator would move. Many times I found myself stranded on the third floor because someone had taken the elevator down to the first floor and not closed the gate. When my friends and I walked downtown, either down Madison or Western Avenue, we weren’t able to stay on the same side of the street because not every intersection had curb cuts on all four corners. So, we would zig zag downtown, crossing at certain streets so we would have access to the sidewalk. I never took a public bus until I started using STAR paratransit services in 1993.

I was fortunate. As a child, I had parents and siblings who told me time and time again I was capable, I was smart, I was competent – I could do anything I wanted to. I grew up knowing I would go to college and get a job. It was what was expected of me.

Sadly, that is not the expectation often held by others when it comes to people with disabilities. When President Bush signed the ADA, he said the walls of inequity for people with disabilities would come down. Many have – but there are many more which need to fall.

Just look at employment. In New York State, the percentage of people with disabilities who are working age (21-64 years old) who have full time employment lasting at least a year or more is 20%. Compare that to the percentage of their non-disabled peers – which is 56%.¹

Full time employment is not attainable for everyone for a variety of reasons. If we look at employment – full or part time – for working age people with disabilities in New York, the percentage increases to 32%. One third of working age adults with disabilities in New York have some employment. That may sound good until you hear that 76%, or three quarters, of working age non-disabled adults in New York are employed either full or part time.

Employment affects everything. And I’m glad the federal and state governments are trying to create policies which increase employment for people with disabilities. Without jobs, many of us wouldn’t be able to live where we live, or drive our own vehicles.  We wouldn’t be taxpayers with discretionary income. We wouldn’t have the sense of self-esteem and purpose many of us have gained by engaging in activities which provide value to ourselves and others.

The ADA has made it possible for musicians, like the ones you’re about to hear in Flame, to tour and pursue their passion. The ADA, through the Olmstead decision, has made it possible for people with disabilities to live in their communities where they belong instead of in nursing homes or institutions. Community based supports and services, like the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance I use every day, make it possible for people like me and you to live in their own homes.

But no law can ever legislate attitude change. It is up to all of us to continue to educate and advocate for our rights – to show others our potential so they realize everyone has value, everyone deserves respect. Whether or not we want to be, we are examples of what is possible. The adaptations and accommodations we demand improve not just our lives, but the lives of those who will come after us. I promise to continue speaking up for all of us, and I hope you will do the same.

Congratulations to all of you for being ambassadors for people with disabilities here in the Capital Region. Keep up the good work and enjoy the concert!

 

¹Statistics related to employment in other states may be found at http://www.disabilitystatistics.org. For this speech, I searched using results from the American Community Survey.

To The Graduates

Dear Graduates from the Class of 2015,

In my area of the United States, this weekend is high school graduation. Just like you, many students are celebrating the conclusion of one era of their lives, preparing to embark on the journey to adulthood. My friends and I have shared memories from our high school graduation on social media – something not even imagined when we graduated from high school – and we have had fun commenting about experiences with commencement.

I almost didn’t participate in commencement with my class, but not because I was in danger academically. I spent my last year of high school as an exchange student in Australia, so I had a different experience at graduation than most of my peers. I had no desire to return home for the graduation ceremonies. My student visa did not expire until July, but my parents asked me to come home in June to graduate. My family and friends wanted me to be there. However, graduation meant nothing to me. In my head, I had already moved on. I had been living on my own in a foreign country for almost a year, and had no desire to participate in a ceremony celebrating completion of something I had already left behind.

In the end, I did return home in time to graduate with the other sixty four members of my high school class. I don’t regret being there for their celebration, but I do regret depriving myself of an extra month in Australia. It is one of the few regrets I have from the past twenty five years.

Now you are standing where I stood twenty five years ago. You probably think you have a plan. You imagine you know what will happen next. You have selected a college or university, or maybe you are going to leave for boot camp in a few weeks. Perhaps you have a job and you are ready to begin working towards a career. Or, maybe you’re afraid because you don’t have it all figured out yet.

When I was your age, I thought I had it figured out. I knew where I was going to college. I knew what I would study. I had a picture of what my dream job looked like. I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted life to be like when I “grew up.”

Guess what?

The world considers me a “grown up.” And life is nothing like what I thought it would be.

Looking back, the only part of the plan I envisioned to be successfully executed was college. I knew I was going to attend The College of Saint Rose, and I did. But that special education major which was to help prepare me for graduate school where I would study music therapy? Yeah – I knew within a week of classes it wasn’t for me. That dream job working with children with disabilities as a music therapist? It morphed into an amazing job working as a speech-language pathologist with geriatric nursing home residents. Who knew I would love “the old folks” so much, and find it rewarding to spend my time improving their quality of life? And that career as a speech-language pathologist? I never imagined I would want to leave it and begin one new career in my thirties, and then another new one just before turning forty.

Life doesn’t follow a plan. It is messy. It is full of surprises, opportunities disguised as difficulties, and second chances.

Life is not fair. It just is. It’s how you cope that matters.

You have so many choices as you start the next part of your journey. You will receive advice from adults, like me. Adults who are full of optimism for you, who remember what it was like to stand in cap and gown, ready to change the world, a little nervous about the future. I encourage you to listen to the advice, and store it in your brain for future use. Trust me – right now you are not able to predict when those words of wisdom will apply to you, but they will.

I did not receive much advice at graduation, but I received many words of wisdom the prior year before I went to Australia. The night before I left, I received the best advice from a dear family friend. It is advice which has guided me for twenty five years, and has helped me live without many regrets.

Say yes to life. Do it all. You never know if you’ll get another chance.

That’s it – say yes to life.

Be engaged. Get involved. Don’t miss an opportunity to pay a compliment. Hug your loved ones. Tell and show your friends how much they matter to you. Take a stand for those who need an ally. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. Say yes to life.

Graduates- the world needs your intelligence, your passion and your creativity. We are trusting you to share your talents and your treasure to improve your communities. We are hopeful you will make a difference in the lives of those around you. We are confident you will succeed.

Good luck – you can do it!graduation

My Go-To Tunes: This One’s for the Class of 1995

This weekend is my twentieth college reunion. I don’t feel as if it has been twenty years, but the calendar tells me it has been. I am spending the weekend reminiscing and laughing with my friends. Some of us are staying on campus. In fact, I am rooming with Chris, who was my roommate for most of my college experience.

I have been active in my Alumni Association for ten years, and served as President from 2011 to 2014. This is the first Alumni Weekend I am not obligated to attend in eight years, but it is MY year, so of course I am going. My bag is packed with the essentials: clothes, make up, towels, hair dryer, toiletries, bottle opener, corkscrew and glasses. I’m excited and ready for this trip down memory lane with the people who helped be grow and shape me into the person I am now.

If you are a regular reader, you know I connect music with memories. But, somehow I never made a St. Rose playlist! I rectified this, and to make this weekend a bit more fun (and to help get in the mood) I am sharing some tunes which always take me back to life in Lima and Riley Halls. Enjoy this trip down memory lane! Class of 1995 – this one’s for you!

American Music – Violent Femmes

This song, the first on the “Why Do Birds Sing” album, was a staple in Room 2 of Riley Hall. Chris and I played this CD frequently. Who doesn’t like American Music?

The Globe – Big Audio Dynamite

The legal drinking age in New York is 21. There were a few places which were accessible and allowed underage admission. One of those places was Peabody’s. Chris and I went there one night, along with my freshman year roommate Chrysta. As this song played, the crowd went nuts because Otto arrived. I don’t know who Otto was, if that was his real name, or why he mattered. Still today, whenever I hear this song, I think of him. And the three of us dancing.

Dreams – Gabrielle

This song is Chris, and ladies night at Michael’s. Whenever it came on, she was the one who jumped up first.

Evenflow – Pearl Jam

“Ten” was released my freshman year and I remember listening with Tara in Lima Hall.

What Time is It – Spin Doctors

Whenever anyone asked this question, we always answered “4:30!” It didn’t matter what time it really was. There are still times I am tempted to say it.

I Palindrome I – They Might Be Giants

Some college students gather in their rooms and imbibe while listening to rock or rap. When we got together, They Might Be Giants was always on. And it was usually the Apollo 18 album.

Real Love – Mary J. Blige

When we went to Michael’s for ladies night, this song meant it was time to dance.

Laid – James

I have never seen this video before. I’ve been singing the song for twenty years. For me, this takes me back to “the summer of surgery” when I spent three months in a cast. We had a fun time planning new student orientation.

This Is How We Do It – Montell Jordan

I think I impressed my niece Karen last year at my nephew’s wedding when I was able to sing and rap all of the words to this song during the reception. Or else she was horrified and needed to cover her face in shame. This song is Senior Week, sipping Pink Swimmingo Kool-Aid on the lawn, midnight bowling

I Got a Man – Positive K

“You got a WHAT?! How long ya had that problem?!” I still use that line, even though most may not get the reference.

Set Adrift on Memory Bliss – PM Dawn

Sunday nights the local top 40 radio station played Open House Party. This song, along with their other song “I’d Die Without You” was often on.

Rumpshaker – Wreckx-N-Effect

Laurie (who was nicknamed Cully) was not much of a dancer, but this would always get her moving.

Right Here – SWV

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this song was on in the cafeteria every day during lunch for at least a year. In case you’re wondering what happened to SWV, they reunited and were nominated for a Grammy Award in 2013 for Best Traditional R&B Performance for their song “If Only You Knew.”