In the past two weeks, I have seen a lot of anger.
I am a Slippery Rock student. Since 2017, I’ve had the pleasure of living here, studying and exploring, earning two degrees in education and forging an unexpected career in advocacy for individuals with disabilities and other differences that present unique challenges. I genuinely owe my successes to these individuals welcoming me into their spaces, day-after-day, and for that I am grateful.
Accordingly, when I first found out about the anticipated closure of the Rock Life program – information which was more recently proved inaccurate – I was heartbroken. I wanted to rally the troops. Stage a protest. Write letters. Talk to anyone who would listen. I wanted to scream, and I wanted to cry.
I was not alone in those feelings. The Slippery Rock community’s social media landscape and certain on-campus environments became a battleground overnight. Many students – including students I had never before seen displaying their passion for disability inclusion – made their voices heard. I could not open my phone without seeing a new angle, a new anecdote, a new fervent rant about the perceived disgraceful actions of SRU’s administration. I can say that I am proud of the dedication I witnessed with regard to protecting inclusion in our community.
However, during this process, I was in contact with many Rock Life students and their families. They were not screaming. They were not name-calling, and they were not feeding the social media machine with expletive-laden demands. Instead, they wanted clarity. A better understanding of how they were to be impacted and the changes they needed to anticipate. This was not a new situation for many of them; disability services closing down is not necessarily an uncommon occurrence. We felt less equipped to handle the community’s emotions and the onslaught of information than we were to handle the event itself.
Advocacy is not done in the pursuit of personal glory, and it is not an opportunity to advance a personal agenda. Advocacy is built on empathy for the underserved, or the minority or the misunderstood. And empathy is built on understanding. This is where I believe segments of our otherwise well-intentioned community failed, and this is why my pride faded to disappointment as public sentiment shifted from pro-inclusion to anti-administration.
The future of Rock Life, perhaps under a new name and with a new curriculum, seems secure as I write this. Our administrators have made clear that the program is valuable and necessary. There were communication failures. There was misinformation spread – undeniably. But an advocate cannot lose sight of their goal, which in this case should have been nothing more than ensuring a program will exist for college students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the future, I would urge a gentler and more direct approach to creating change. Nothing is more valuable than our passion when it is directed appropriately.
I challenge everyone who shared their emotions during this period to keep the fire burning. Slippery Rock really is an inclusive community, and there are always opportunities to contribute to pro-diversity causes. Volunteer in the Transition Achievement Program. Apply to coach in Rock Life. Attend an SGA meeting. Take Disability Sport next semester, or maybe just befriend a student who isn’t quite like yourself.