Duke to Host National Disability Retreat

“Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance” to focus on higher education student experience

Duke junior Jay Ruckelshaus, right, is helping to organize
Duke junior Jay Ruckelshaus, right, is helping to organize "Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance," Duke's first national Disability Retreat. Photo courtesy of Jay Ruckelshaus

Weeks before Jay Ruckelshaus was to start his first year at Duke University in 2011, a diving accident created a new reality for him: quadriplegia. Moving into a Duke dorm room was put on hold as he underwent a year’s worth of hospital treatments and therapies.Ruckelshaus, now a philosophy and political science junior at Duke, is helping to organize a national disability conference on Duke’s campus on October 22 and 23. “The fact that we’re including both students and administrators who are excited about this from colleges across the country, it’s something that’s never been done before,” Ruckelshaus said. “We expect a community to form pretty quickly, that everyone will be able to share and diagnose some of the problems they face and brainstorm potential solutions.”Ruckelshaus met about a year ago with Duke administrators to discuss his idea for a national conference that would take disability discussions beyond compliance and focus instead on campus culture and the higher education experience for students with disabilities."The vision for this initiative belongs to Jay, and several of us have been deeply involved and wildly supportive,” said Kyle Cavanaugh, Duke’s vice president for administration. “The idea of moving beyond what we have to do, and into a discussion of possibilities, is both inspiring and insightful.”  The retreat, “Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance,” will be at the R. David Thomas Executive Conference Center on West Campus, and registration is now open to students and administrators across the country and at Duke. The deadline to register is Oct. 13, and representatives from institutions such as American University, Rutgers University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Georgia and Brown University are planning to attend.Invited guest speakers include, among others, Mark Johnson of the Shepherd Center, a not-for-profit hospital in Atlanta specializing in medical treatment, research, and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury and brain injury; Ashley Holben of Mobility International USA, which helps connect people with disabilities to international exchange; and Leigh Fickling, director of Duke’s Disability Management System.  Fickling said she is looking forward to conversations that highlight the psychological aspects of disability and provide tips on how to thrive in the higher education setting. “Even though the disabilities may vary, there is a common, underlying language that everyone speaks, and I hope the retreat can help facilitate the conversations that are needed on a nationwide level that moves beyond staying within the bounds of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” she said. “It will help us really think about students with disabilities and what it takes to help them get the most out of their college experiences.”

Before Ruckelshaus arrived at Duke as a student in 2012, he worked with Duke’s Disability Management System staff to ensure his classrooms and residence hall were accessible, down to the details such as having a remote that opens the door to his room. On campus, he became active, joining fraternity Pi Kappa Phi to serving as an equity and outreach senator for Duke Student Government. “It’s so possible and so attainable to really incorporate into all aspects of university life,” Ruckelshaus said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have had that environment here at Duke to really pursue whatever I want to.”