16 May, 2011

The Sally Effect

Yesterday was Commencement - my 36th at this college, but that's not what I'm thinking about. Sure, there are students now gone that I'll miss, and I wish them the best. What I'm thinking about, however, are the faculty who are leaving as well. Retirement.

I'm thinking about one colleague in particular; let's call her Sally. When I was Vice-President for Academic Affairs, I hired Sally. That was in 1991, and after two decades of dedicated teaching and service, she is retiring. The college will be diminished.

I have been asked to share a memory about Sally. The one I've selected involves another faculty colleague who happens to have significantly impaired vision, and it's a memory that highlights Sally's concern and commitment to the rights of those with disabilities.

I work in an environment where most people are already sensitive to disability issues, but when our new colleague arrived, Sally was the one who consistently and persistently reminded us that there were some simple behaviors we should practice as minor accommodations. A reminder to use a larger font in our printed materials or at least in the digital copy we send our new colleague. A reminder to always speak first so she knows you're there or who you are. A reminder to repeat aloud anything you or others may be reading from a board or screen.

A reminder to teach our students to do the same - that they orally signal their presence when coming to her office, that they speak and identify themselves when they raise their hands in class, that jokes or comments about those with visual-impairments - or any disability for that matter - are always inappropriate and should be challenged.

And many other reminders when we occasionally forgot to do the obvious. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone say "oops, I should have thought of it," I'd be the one retiring instead of Sally. Some of us were good students - just strengthening habits by putting into practice what we already knew. Other faculty - unfortunately - were poor students, and some simply never "got it." Sally, however, was and continues to be a patient teacher.

Two decades seems like a long time, but it's not long enough for me. Although I like to think I am more enlightened than many regarding disability awareness, I shall miss having Sally around to remind us, to chide when necessary, and to defend, if challenged, the rights of those who need such support. With her presence, I felt more confident that we could make the world a wee bit fairer, at least in our small corner of it.

Thank you, Sally.