What does it mean to truly be ready for inclusion? I think readiness for inclusion begins with a state of mind and a commitment to grow and change. To see this commitment, one cannot but be convinced that change is imminent, and one can truly believe it will be impressive. I had the privilege to spend a few days last week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa working with Coe College to take a good hard look at their current preparedness for welcoming people with disabilities, and to help them begin the process of thinking about how to improve.
I went in not knowing what to expect. That I was invited was encouraging, but it was hard to know what my reception would look like.
The weeks running up to the visit fostered optimism. It seemed that a very diverse population of stakeholders wanted meetings. We added a public speech to the schedule, and the College began to generate media interest in my visit. On the day that I was to fly out, as a freak snowstorm in Chicago disrupted all flights through the Midwest to Iowa, and I was minutes away from canceling my trip, but the determined Coe team found a driver, a contractor in Chicago, willing to drive all the way from Chicago to Cedar Rapids.
I arrived at Coe late at night, with care to be provided by the faculty and students of the nursing program. Despite the extraordinarily late arrival due to my altered travel plans, and some obstacles posed by some unusual factors at the hotel, the instructor and the two students providing my evening care were able to get me cared for and in bed, with the instructor staying to greet the morning team so that things would be seamless.
I began the next day teaching a workshop that was designed to examine, challenge and evolve attitudes on students with disabilities and inclusion. I was completely uncertain who would attend, it being open to the entire faculty and staff. In the end, I was greeted by a group comprising almost 10% of the entire faculty and staff community, including the entire senior leadership of the college, as the college president had decided to cancel the Tuesday morning executive meeting and bring the entire executive team to my workshop. He led a group in the breakout sessions, of which we needed four, rather than are anticipated two.
And what groups they were. The 35 people present generated so many ideas, thoughts and concerns about students with disabilities that I almost couldn’t get through them all in the 15 minutes that I had allotted for my review of group output, while the participants listened to student presentations. And they were thoughtful concerns, perhaps not all couched in exactly the paradigm that I was teaching, but all generating significant interest in, and concern for inclusion. (In point of fact, if they had been within my paradigm, then they wouldn’t have needed me.)
When we came back together to discuss their responses, they eagerly embraced the potential of the concept of universal inclusion, the notion of focusing on each student for the value that they bring as a student and reimagining the accommodation experience to be an experience where each person’s individual needs were met, regardless of medical diagnosis.
They peppered me with thoughtful questions about how they might make this a reality. The rest of the day was spent with my doing a deep dive into the current state of inclusion at Coe. I toured the campus, met with key stakeholders, received the combined student input from a meeting that I had missed because of the travel change, and was even treated to lunch in the college dining hall. That evening, I spoke to the Cedar Rapids community about inclusion in employment.
Now, I will not say that my visit did not identify many potential improvement areas for inclusion, because it did. I certainly won’t offer that the current state of inclusion at Coe is particularly a model for other schools, because they have much work to do. To be honest, though, that isn’t particularly unusual.
What was unusual, and what impressed me more than I can say, was the incredible eagerness to make a change. Bringing me in was a good first step, but only tells part of the story.
As I mentioned, a substantial percentage of the Coe team including the entire executive team were enthusiastic participants in my workshop. On the student side, the enthusiasm was equally apparent. My tour guide was inspired to completely revamp the Coe tour to make it universally inclusive, and the admissions office was receptive. The president of the student body stopped me to say that the student Senate had funds available and that they wanted to know how they could best use those funds to promote inclusion.
At the conclusion of my trip, in a closed-door meeting with the executive team, I gave them candid blunt assessments of the next steps that they needed to take, which were met with a deep sense, from the president on down, that they intended to embrace them. After an hour telling them the hard work they had ahead, I was met universally with gratitude and appreciation.
This, then, is the inspiration of Coe College. I left Iowa Wednesday morning absolutely convinced that the entire Coe community was poised for a giant leap forward. It’s entirely possible that they will leapfrog catching up in their opportunity areas right ahead to becoming an exemplar for the collegiate community.
I can’t emphasize how much this is critical to change. The combined student, staff and faculty commitment is at least as important as the financial commitment, and vastly more important than the current number of accessible buildings on a particular campus. I truly believe that Coe College can already be considered an exemplar. Not an exemplar of current inclusion practices, but rather an exemplar of the choices and commitments prerequisite to meaningful change.
I am grateful to have observed it and to have participated in it, and I encourage others to embrace it.