A Shared Vision of Access

A Shared Vision of Access
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When we invest a great deal of thought and energy in something -- whether that's finishing a classic tome like Moby-Dick, or, say, conducting a massive interview-based sociological study on leadership over ten years and writing a book about it -- that investment has a way of shaping how we interact with nearly everything around us.

After finishing work on my new book, A View from the Top (out this May), I'm seeing many of the situations I encounter daily fall under the different chapter and section headers of the manuscript. That's probably a good sign, particularly in identifying hallmarks of what I call "leading with your life." And as I work through my first few years as a college president, I have I learned firsthand the indispensability of another of these tenets -- developing a shared vision.

Developing a shared vision is equal parts history and ambition. It's about honoring the best of the institution's past and projecting that spirit into the future. For Gordon College, that has a lot of meanings. We're proud of our heritage as a missionary training institute, and we continue to think globally about faith and vocation. We've long been a place where faith does not come at the expense of serious academic inquiry, and we continue to work at the leading edge of scholarship while staying true to our core beliefs. The list goes on.

Most recently, shared vision has begun to take new form. Since our founding in 1889, Gordon has been a place committed to access and opportunity. Even in the 19th century, our graduating classes featured surprising gender parity and racial diversity. It's fair to say we were on the vanguard of that important social trend. And in the past year I've seen another facet of this vision emerge at Gordon through the passionate work of our faculty and students: access for persons with disabilities.

Now, some personal context is in order here. As parents to a ten-year-old daughter with special needs, my wife and I are acutely aware of this challenge. Still, to be entirely honest, I had never paid much attention to the shape of the "handicap symbol" -- essentially a wheelchair with a head and foot -- until two professors at my college brought their Accessible Icon Project (AIP) to my attention. It's a simple concept: The AIP endeavors to replace the ubiquitous, static International Symbol of Access with a figure that looks more active, alive and embodied, and by doing so, change perceptions of persons with disabilities. Developed by Harvard artist Sarah Hendren in partnership with Gordon philosophy professor Brian Glenney, Gordon design professor Tim Ferguson-Sauder, and the disability advocacy group Triangle, the AIP has sparked conversations and changed perspectives on accessibility across the country. Many businesses, municipalities and colleges (Gordon included) across the country have already adopted the new symbol. Last month, the project was added to New York City's MOMA permanent collection, and the design is featured in the Museum's show, A Collection of Ideas, through January 2015.

It's always exciting when the great ideas of faculty gain broader cultural cachet, but as a teacher myself, I'm even more excited when such initiatives catalyze the passions of our students -- as was the case with Gordon College senior Leah Serao. A linguistics and elementary education double major with special interest in non-verbal autism and disability advocacy, Leah has been a key player in the AIP since its early stages -- she's even presented on the project at several conferences and events. Last month, Leah launched a campus-wide series of lectures and forums at Gordon titled Beyond Disabilities Week, which explored many issues of access, ability and disability within the context of higher education and in American society as a whole. It was truly an exciting and challenging event for our whole community -- made all the more inspiring for the way it seemed to flow so naturally out of the considerations the AIP brought to campus a year before.

The week culminated in a Friday morning guest lecture to the entire student body by the eminent agricultural engineer, animal welfare expert and autism advocate, Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin's talk served as a galvanizing witness to the necessary and beautiful plurality of ways we each interact with the world around us. Some, like Dr. Grandin, think in pictures, and can solve complex design problems in the blink of an eye. Others think mathematically, or conceptually. We all have strengths, and we all have deficiencies. We are, all of us, both abled and disabled -- and in these ways we complement one another with our modes of though, our physical limitations, our strengths of character.

Now, I should say: Gordon is not yet where we would like to be with regards to campus accessibility. Like most other colleges and universities, we still struggle against the constraints of our older facilities and tight budgets. But these are vital issues for higher education and our culture as a whole to seriously consider. How are we leading for good among populations with disabilities? What is the power of symbols -- and of shared perceptions -- to help or hinder? The answer to these questions strike to the very heart of human dignity and personhood. Access, at its core, is about humanity.

I am proud to be part of an institution that has remained devoted to cultivating a community of access and opportunity for 125 years. That's the history. Here's the ambition: May we do more to honor the contributions and concerns of our differently abled brothers and sisters, investing our ideas and energy in charting a more accessible future together.

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