Profiles in Courage

Appeared in: St. Helena Star

By: Tom Brown

In my nearly 30 years at Saint Mary’s College, I met very few students with the courage, determination, or resilience of Hilary Anderson. Hilary had a neuromuscular disease that affected her motor skills and speech.

Without question, Hilary’s physical disability challenged and frustrated her. However, she refused to be limited, remaining an active and valued member of the campus community. Hilary could light up a room with her smile, and tears still come easily as I remember the prolonged ovation of her classmates as she made her way across the stage to receive her diploma on commencement day.

Hilary was diagnosed with her disability at 12 years old, and she started using a walker, then a wheelchair. She recalled going to class at Saint Mary’s one day and seeing another student in a wheelchair.

“It was the first time I’d seen anyone else in a wheelchair on campus and it was a great feeling,” she said. In that moment, perhaps Hilary realized she was not alone.

According to a 2004 U.S. Census Bureau Population Bulletin called “Disability in America,” one of every five Americans five years of age or older has a disability, and that number will only continue to grow. Some disabilities are more evident, such as sight and hearing impairments, but many disabilities are invisible, including those that are psychiatric, learning, medical or developmental.  Many U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are surviving injuries that once would have been fatal, and they will come home with various visible and invisible disabilities.

In an era when some would prefer to believe that discrimination is no longer a problem, it is important to remember that it was not until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) removed the remaining barriers to full access for people with disabilities. Shortly thereafter, Thomas West, a distinguished author who only learned he had dyslexia at age 43, observed that students with disabilities had always been on campus, but “many had been smart enough to escape detection,” to avoid being labeled or excluded.

Today, students with disabilities are no longer in hiding. Colleges and universities not only welcome them, but also offer a wide array of programs and services to assist them to achieve their goals and potential. For many students with disabilities, however, college is the first time they will have to assume the personal responsibility, independence and assertiveness to advocate effectively for themselves.

Diane Hansen, Director of Academic and Disability Support Services at Samuel Merritt College in Oakland, says the most successful students are often those who have had to deal with their disabilities from a young age.

“As students come to college,” she said, “they come to understand that their disability is just one part of their total identity.” Ms. Hansen added that health professionals and others with disabilities have a great deal more empathy in everything they do.

“They understand when a patient doesn’t understand something right away,” she said. “They get what it feels like and are often more supportive.”

Dr. Amy Milsom, a professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, recalled a student who was wheelchair-bound from a childhood accident. The young man’s experiences before college had often been difficult; he was withdrawn and hesitant to get involved. Once in college, he found that he was appreciated for his sense of humor and other talents.

Professor Milsom noted, “It becomes easier in college to create the life you want by taking advantage of opportunities, and this is where residence life, disability services personnel and others can be very helpful.” The student got a job in the dining hall swiping meal cards and got to know people just by seeing them and joking around.

Professor Milsom recently completed the first phase of a major research project, where college educators across the country were asked to identify the skills, attitudes and behaviors they believe are essential to success for students with learning disabilities. First is self-confidence in their ability to succeed. Next are student knowledge of how to access support services and a willingness to advocate for themselves. Then comes persistence and perseverance, which is the ability to keep going in pursuit of their goals.

The psychologist, Daniel Goleman, observed in his book, Emotional Intelligence, what we need to know about people is whether they will keep going when things get frustrating, because achievement is not just the result of talent, but also of the ability to overcome difficult circumstances.

In an interview, Hilary Anderson once commented, “The most important thing is just being sensitive and trying to be a little bit more aware. We’ve got to give what we can and not set limitations on anybody. Just let everybody do what they are capable of doing.”


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