Monday, April 23, 2007

Christie Gilson: An Agent for Change

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christie Gilson. I met Christie at her office in the Education Building at the University of Illinois. Christie is a warm, friendly person with an easy laugh, and was very open in sharing her thoughts and goals. She has a “go for it” outlook on life, teaching by example to follow one's dreams. This is the first of several entries about my interview with Christie.

Christie is a blind Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois. She has an interest in the educational experiences of students with disabilities around the world, particularly in Asia. She said that Asian college students with disabilities are underrepresented in education research. Two years ago, Christie applied for a Fulbright scholarship to do her dissertation research with students at the University of Hong Kong. Her alternative plan was to interview international students with disabilities currently living in the U.S. about their schooling experiences.

Christie was thrilled to learn, several months later, that Fulbright had accepted her, and she began to plan the many details that would make for a successful Fulbright experience. She needed to set up all the necessary requirements for her dissertation research, and because she is blind, she had additional planning to do. Christie had previously lived in Germany with her ex-husband, but this would be her first time traveling alone for an extended period of time. She called Mobility International USA and the American Consulate to ask for travel and living advice. One of her hardest decisions was deciding whether to bring her elderly German Shepherd guide dog. In Hong Kong, dogs are uncommon, and guide dogs are never used. Also, because her dog is elderly, Christie wondered whether her dog would be anxious in such an unfamiliar place. In the end, Christie decided it would be best to leave her dog home and bring her white cane.

Excited to share her big news, Christie told family, friends, and coworkers about her Fulbright award. Most were excited and supportive, happy that Christie would be following her dream of going to Asia and respectful of Christie's ability to do the work to make this experience successful.

However, there was one person who doubted. A special education faculty member. The only place that Christie encountered questioning of her ability to function as a blind Fulbright scholar in Asia was from a special education faculty member.

We hope that special education teachers empower students with disabilities to believe in their capabilities and support them in finding the necessary resources to make their dreams happen. The irony is that many of us have consistently had the exact opposite experience. We've had special education teachers who cannot see beyond our disabilities. They box us in, seeing us as nothing more than a collection of "problems". Christie’s out to change special education. As a faculty member, teaching special education teachers, there will be no more boxes.

Description of picture: Christie and her German Shepherd guide dog, Jill


Ruth said...

Very interesting story - and person. Amazing how people with disabilities are seen as a collection of "problems" when we hold the key to solutions in many cases.

David said...

I agree. She is a very interesting person. I'll have a few more posts about our talk. Thanks so much for your comment Ruth.

Anonymous said...

I am excited to hear that Christie is out to change the way Special Education teachers and personnel think. My son is only 6 - has been in school for such a short part of his life so far and already they have boxed him in at school. His special education school is trying their hardest to make him medically fragile. So for me, change can't come fast enough!

Jan said...

Yes she is a very interesting and intelligent young lady. I am very honored to be her mother and good friend. She has accomplished more than any other person I know.