A Legacy of Accessibility and Positive Disruption

“Accessibility in Higher Education is Like Making Elephants Dance.”

~Ron Stewart

Dancing elephant

I still remember attending my first big workshop about how to address accessibility from a campus perspective. It was one of those transformative experiences that sparked a fire in me, and it would help guide me from a job to a career of making higher education accessible for students with disabilities.  The leader of this workshop was a man whose influence on me and my future I could not have then guessed, but we would eventually grow to be friends and coworkers, and he would continue to show me how accessibility could successfully drive institutional change for the good of the order- or as some people describe it, how to be a professional royal pain in the ass.

It was in 2004 at the CSUN conference, back when the conference still occupied both the Hilton and Marriott hotels on Century Blvd, right across from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). This was a pre-conference session entitled “Developing A Fully Accessible Postsecondary Campus”, and it was an interactive session led by Ron Stewart. Using Ron’s personal experience and stories as the basis of our materials, we explored the very messy issue of developing a campus-wide program for assistive technology, universal design, and addressing the many cultural issues surrounding the topics of disability and accessibility.

At the time, I was working as an Alternate Media Specialist at Mendocino College, and my scope of influence for transformative change seemed rather limited. Still, I was fascinated with the idea of an accessible campus, and I remember listening to Ron with rapt attention and a growing fascination as he described his experiences doing something I had spent most of my life avoiding: engaging in prolonged conflict with authority and workplace politics- or in other words, advocating for accessibility in higher education.

As I was conflict-adverse and rather shy in those days (believe it or don’t), issues requiring leadership or confrontation and conflict were usually red flags for me to keep my head down and try not to draw any attention- much like a mythical hobbit. If you had told me then that I would someday be arguing passionately with senior administration about anything at all, I would have laughed in your face. While the very notion was unthinkable to me, I still found myself following along with Ron and his story. I couldn’t help but find parallels between my own situation and what he was describing, and I found myself learning some of the usually unspoken facts of life in higher education.

“To behave with equanimity is the sign of inborn nobility in humans.”

~Aelian, Circa 200

Now let’s address the elephant in the room: Ron never was a wilting flower, nor was he known for his equanimity- in fact he could be downright difficult to deal with. His passion and insistence on doing what he believed was right proved to be a force that few could stand up to, and he never shied away from a fight. However, as difficult as he might be, he always stood up for the truth and what was just, and he was a tireless champion of the rights of human beings everywhere to rise out of ignorance. Say what you want about equanimity, Ron was righteous in his own noble mission to ensure people be treated with dignity and have equal access to gain an education.

I remember one story in which Ron described a confrontation with senior administrators who were resisting his advice to hold deans and faculty accountable. One of the administrators protested “We can’t possibly do that Ron, the elephant just won’t dance that way!” At this point, Ron  paused for dramatic effect and a sly smile grew across his face as he proceeded with the story of how he taught that manager a couple of lessons in making elephants dance.

The point of the story is not that Ron liked dancing elephants, but that advocating for systemic, institutional, and cultural change can seem impossible at first glance, much like getting an elephant to dance. However, upon closer scrutiny we find that it is not so much impossible or difficult as it first seems. True, it is sometimes difficult (and perhaps dangerous) to get an elephant to dance- but you might be surprised at how gracefully it can be done with the right approach. In any case, the benefits of transforming a campus culture into one that values and delivers accessibility is certainly worth the risk and effort.

After all this time, I can tell you that what seems like endless potential for conflict can sometimes be endless opportunity for education. Advocating and teaching about accessibility often brings unanticipated potential for surprising partnerships that can drive a campus together into a more effective learning community.

When managed artfully, accessibility can happen organically as an unstoppable force of our nature to do good work. I believe this because despite our differences and peculiarities, at the end of the day my community is made up of educators working towards the common goal of supporting students in their pursuit of an education. Our work in supporting accessibility in higher education is simply about making sure ALL students get the same opportunity to pursue that education.

I am sorry to share that my friend Ron died last week, and his loss is felt across the country. The outpourings of sympathy interrupt my daily drama with bittersweet thoughts and memories. I am reminded that sometimes it is all too easy for me to forget the origins of my journey here. With everything that still needs to be done weighing on my mind, it is all too easy to forget how much has been accomplished by pioneers like Ron, and how different everything was just a short while ago. These are the moments when you have to stop and take stock of your situation, and check your course.

In 2004, I could not have guessed how many opportunities I would have to work with Ron. Our relationship would grow and change in many ways, and I’m happy to have been fortunate enough to become and remain his friend. I am humbled and grateful for the time he has shared with me, and I am honored to have been able to work with Ron and continue advocating for accessibility in higher education. Over the course of our friendship, Ron shared several pearls of wisdom that still help me persevere and retain the critical connections with what truly matters in our life and our life’s work.

Ron Stewart in Buffalo Hat
Ron was the Grand Poobah of the Access Technologists Higher Education Network (ATHEN)

While I am saddened by Ron’s passing, I take some small comfort in knowing the impact and influence of his work (and his personality) will continue to reverberate throughout the A11y community. What’s more, because of his work and influence, the world of higher education continues to grow richer and be a better place for ALL students.

And coincidentally, I’m hearing that sightings of dancing elephants are also on the rise…


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