by Timothy Leonard
Midwestern Student Representative, 2013-2014
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, IN
For those of you who don’t know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Timothy Leonard, the Midwestern Student Representative, and I have a physical disability that causes me to utilize a wheelchair. I also have a speech impediment that tends to show itself when I’m nervous. Unlike being in a wheelchair, I’ve had the speech impediment since birth. Having a speech impediment and now with my limited mobility, I’ve had to overcome my fear of being judged by others and nervousness about speaking in front of people and presenting my work.
I have to say that I was shocked and overwhelmed by the acceptance I have received from Sigma Tau Delta, both in my chapter and at my first annual international convention last year in Portland, OR. Upon my arrival in Portland, I was immediately welcomed by multiple people who offered their assistance to ensure that my experience was a memorable one.
The first night I attended an open mic night. As I sat there listening to others present some amazing work, I was encouraged by a fellow chapter member to present my own. I did not respond, but a member of the Society I’ve never met before grabbed my work and started to read it. They didn’t know me, but they also encouraged me to get up and read.
I took their motivation and went up to the mic. There I was, sitting in my wheelchair, studying the eyes of the people in the crowd. I noticed that their eyes were not focused on my wheelchair, but on me. Though my speech impediment made an appearance, I finished my presentation and was welcomed by a round of applause from the audience.
After the event was over, some alumni and other members invited me and another chapter member to attend a social gathering at the hotel’s restaurant. They asked about my personal goals and how our young chapter was adjusting to being part of the Society. We explained that our goal at the convention was to bring back information to help our chapter prosper in the upcoming year. Our new friends explained that just being at the convention was a great start, but we should also go to as many events as possible during the week.
When I returned to my room, I started to cry. I was taken aback by how the Society was accepting of not just new members, but individuals with disabilities. I woke the next day with a smile on my face and determination in my spirit to make myself known at the convention. The morning event was the regional networking meeting, where I was able to meet my Regent and Student Representative. I was sitting in a circle with people I’ve never met before, and I still had the same feeling of acceptance. We exchanged ideas about fundraising and discussed some ways to improve the harmony of the region. After listening to other chapters’ members explain their views, I offered suggestions for improving communication. After the meeting was over, I was encouraged to run for the Student Representative (SR) or Associate Student Representative (ASR) position. I was hesitant to respond, since this was my first convention. A prominent alumna, Jayne Higgins, told me, “Sigma Tau Delta is always looking for individuals who want to lead, individuals who are thinkers and doers. I think you are both.”
I spoke with other members and received the same response. Not once did I feel that I was being treated differently, not better or worse, because of my disabilities. I felt at home at the convention. Like at my university, I felt as an equal among my fellow members. This feeling of equality led me to run for the SR position. I didn’t just want to be a leader for the Society, I wanted to show how Sigma Tau Delta welcomes individuals, no matter their gender, race, religion, or ability.
Why am I telling you all about my past experience? Because I want to encourage everyone to attend this year’s convention in Savannah, GA. I understand the fear of attending a large event, thinking that everyone will notice someone who is different. I’m here to say that the convention is a place where you will be judged not on your appearance or physical ability, but as an individual and a scholar.
I, like many individuals with a disability, am cautious when preparing to travel to a new town that I haven’t visited before. Being in a wheelchair brings obstacles that an able bodied person wouldn’t normally encounter. From ensuring that the hotel rooms are ADA compliant to knowing what restaurants and attractions I can go to during my stay, there is much to worry about before I decide to travel.
I’m happy to say that Sigma Tau Delta has made every effort to ensure that their students with disabilities have equal opportunities to enjoy themselves while attending the 2014 Convention in Savannah, GA. I had the opportunity to visit the convention hotel this past September for the fall Board meeting, and I want to share my observations about the location for the upcoming convention.
The Hotel: The hotel for this year’s convention is the Savannah Marriott Riverfront.
Yes, the hotel is literally on the river. However, such a location does not mean that a student with a disability can’t enjoy it. The hotel offers multiple ramps leading to the rear entrance of the hotel where the river is. This same access also has additional ramps leading to the River Market. The hotel offers ADA compliant rooms, which are accessible for students with physical and visual limitations. The rooms have wheelchair accessible showers, lower sinks, and grab bars along the walls in the bathroom. From my experience, there’s no part of the hotel that is not accessible. I enjoyed meals in the Blue Restaurant, had meetings in multiple conference rooms, and even sat poolside with friends while staying in my wheelchair.
I am also glad to say that the hotel employees are more than helpful. During my stay I was constantly approached by hotel staff to see if I needed anything to make my stay more enjoyable. Their ongoing persistence in meeting my needs not only ensured my stay was pleasant, but also showed me that Sigma Tau Delta is careful to have conventions where their students are treated respectfully.
The Town of Savannah: Savannah is a beautiful and historic town. Parts of the town still have original cobblestone streets from the pirate age of 1773. Unfortunately, there is also a massive, steep hill in front of the hotel. This is the main access point from the hotel to the downtown area. I personally had difficulties with it. I needed assistance going down the hill to ensure my safety, and the cobblestone streets could be difficult to navigate. Luckily there are alternate routes to most locations. They may take you a few extra minutes, but these alternate routes are much more accessible. The river walk behind the hotel is flatter and can take you to many attractions, as well as to the trolley or the ferry for transportation to other parts of town. The trolley and ferry are free, or for even faster and more convenient transportation there is a $3 shuttle that will pick you up at the hotel and take you anywhere you want to go. The city of Savannah provides a list of restaurants and attractions that are accessible.
Sigma Tau Delta: Sigma Tau Delta prides itself on being diversified. We are prepared to take whatever action is needed to see that anyone who is interested in attending the 2014 Convention is able to. We recognize that disabilities are not all the same and we are prepared to help in meeting the needs of all students. The convention is a time of great joy and excitement and all members, irrespective of their disability status, are entitled to participate.
Great writers and scholars come from different walks of life. Even those who travel their lives with wheels, walker, cane, or assistive animal should have their work displayed at the 2014 Convention. Anyone who has questions or concerns about attending the convention, for any reason, is encouraged to contact the Central Office at [email protected] for assistance. You are also welcome to contact me at [email protected] if you have any questions about my experiences, or about running for the SR or ASR position. We are here for you. I hope to see you in Savannah!