February 22, 2010

First Person: Disability drives transformative journey

Martha Wisbey

Martha Wisbey is associate director of the Office of Disability Services.

As a new member of the Emory community and the associate director of the Office of Disability Services, I return to this campus after 20 years. To integrate my understanding of where Emory was when I was a staff member in Campus Life, and where it is now, takes time. Listening to the stories of people who have been here for a long time, as well as people who have only been here a short time, and to the many student voices constantly in flux as they move in and out of the different places and spaces at Emory, I am gaining insight. I am sure only Dooley could capture what it is I am seeking to understand.

At the start of my return tenure here, President Wagner spoke of an incoming freshman he helped on move-in day. When he asked this new student about his decision to come to Emory, the student said that he had two major choices. After visiting both campuses and finding both impressively beautiful, with superb facilities, great faculty and great students, the student found the other institution to be rather staid, almost complacent.

At Emory, he felt a sense of an institution that was going somewhere, a community that was on the move; the faculty, staff and students had an evident enthusiasm for the future, a sense that they hadn’t yet arrived, and the student said he wanted to be a part of it. This comment echoed strongly in my head, as this is what I experienced when I interviewed here for this new position. I was seeking to be a part of a place where change was welcome, and inclusion, access and excellence were continual mile markers.

As a person returning to Emory with a disability, I am reentering a place and seeing it from a different point of view. As my identity has changed through the years of educational and work experiences, as well as age and mobility changes, I am learning Emory has made just as many advances and transformations.

After leaving Emory in 1989, I completed a doctorate at the University of Georgia. My first professional position was serving as dean of students at Stephens College and although the work was good, I missed the South. I returned to teach at an institution in the South and during the first holiday break, I was driving home to Florida for the holidays and experienced a crash course in disability awareness — literally. The event I was involved in was a life-changing car accident that placed me in a hospital for three months with nine surgeries, a cardiac arrest, rehabilitation for two years, a wheelchair for one year, crutches for one year, and a cane for another year. It was a time that I will never forget.

First of all, I feel fortunate that I lived, and second, that I have the ability to share my experiences with others. For the first time in my life, I had to grasp what being visible as a person with a disability meant. Since it is not always an understood or accepted part of society, I was confronted with life on life’s terms. I experienced this incident as a time of great growth and a chance to embrace every “step” along the way.

Given the severity of the accident, I was supposed to lose both legs and never walk again, but a skilled doctor and many other health care professionals stood by me and assisted in my recovery and healing. This period of my life taught me what a commitment it is when a student seeks a health degree to serve in a profession that requires them to be at their best when a life-threatening trauma occurs. I thought I cognitively knew what they did, but through real-life experience, I lived it. I can only think of these persons as my life “angels.”

So, 20 years later I am back. I am definitely more insightful, stronger in a sense of self, and able to reflect on the changes that happened in my life. I know I am truly fortunate to work in the Office of Disability Services and to know advocates and leaders who are inviting Emory to learn how disability matters. I know there is much education to be done and the concept of “we don’t know what we don’t know” exists within all of us. Since I have arrived in this role, I have found the commitment and passion, as well as the delivery of services, to be truly excellent in all ways.

I am not sharing this to be dramatic, or to seek sympathy, but to share my “first person” point of view as a person with a disability working on Emory’s campus. People do ask, “What happened to you?” By writing this story, I can share the overall gist of the accident and blend my new role as a contributing member of this community with who I am today. I hope we can continue to dialogue and learn about difference. I am confident that disability can be added to this discussion. I believe I have a lot to share with others and I appreciate the honesty and openness that I encounter with the faculty, staff, and students I have interacted with since arriving.

The fact is, “We are Emory.” We are working hard to make connections with others and stretch beyond our borders to impact society as a whole in our interactions. I hope you will join me and many others in this journey.

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