Executive director of disability support services has led office since 1990.
Christy Willis didn’t intend disability support to be her life’s work. A painting major and fine artist, she began working with severely disabled women at the Fernald State Hospital in Waltham, Mass., “because I needed a job,” she said. “It was just happenstance.”
Now, after 40 years in the field and 30 at the George Washington University’s Disability Support Services (DSS), “I still love the work,” she said.
Ms. Willis will retire this year as the office’s executive director. When she began working at the DSS in 1984, it had been founded only six years before, with only 18 students participating. By the 2013-14 academic year, the number of registered students had risen to more than 900.
“The legacy Christy leaves is one of service, passion, compassion and excellence, not only at GW but for disability support services in higher education nationally,” said Terri Harris Reed, vice provost for diversity and inclusion at GW.
DSS, of which Ms. Willis has served as director since 1990, helps qualified students ensure that their specific disabilities do not limit their educational access. The office provides services like extended test-taking time, housing accommodations and adaptive equipment and connects students with staff for evolving, individualized support. It also can help facilitate communication between students, professors and staff.
“The success of the accommodation process depends on effective communication and the recognition that students with disabilities are students first,” Ms. Willis told a George Washington Today reporter in 2012.
Over the course of her career, Ms. Willis had to take into account both an evolving legal climate and a changing academic landscape. Most students now registered with the DSS have non-visible disabilities, she said, and much of her focus is on getting them access to information, rather than to buildings or programs. The work of disability support, she said, is “never static.”
Susan McMenamin, associate director of DSS, said Ms. Willis “made students—who often come in here in real distress—sense that [DSS] is a place where they can be heard, where they can count on someone being willing to spend time and help them work things out.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Corbb O’Connor, B.A. ’11, who worked as an office assistant at DSS and also used the office’s services during his time at GW. When he and his family were touring colleges, he recalls, they asked disability services coordinators at each school what services they had provided to accommodate blind students. Most were vague—but Ms. Willis, he said, was different, listing specific accomplishments and available services and emphasizing the uniqueness of each student’s situation.
“She said, ‘We have expanded testing time. We have suites set up for testing so if you need diagrams explained, we can do that. We have relationships with publishers. We’ve done a lot of things for students who are blind in the past, and we’ll maybe do some of the same things for you, and maybe some things will be different.’ It was obvious that we were talking with someone who was creative, who wanted students to succeed and to have what they needed.”
Ms. Willis has organized extensive disability programming both at GW and outside the university—often collaborating with students in her work. In 2008, she addressed the National Conference of State Legislatures in a talk titled “Issues in Mental Health,” which included a student presentation by a representative of the DSS Speakers Bureau. The year before, she co-presented with a DSS student to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education on student transition to employment. Most recently, she co-organized the roundtable presentation “Minds on Campus: How College Life Can Support—or Disrupt—Our Mental Health,” with Frank Sesno, director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She also, in collaboration with the English Department, created a symposium called “Composing Disability” which has now run twice.
Before coming to GW, Ms. Willis worked as a teacher for the deaf, a staff interpreter at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a freelance interpreter in the Washington, D.C., area. While working at GW, she also has served as chair of the graduate and professional students special interest group of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD); as president and an executive board member of the Nation’s Capital Area Disability Support Services Coalition; and as an executive board member of the Capital Area Association on Higher Education and Disability (C-AHEAD).
Now—freed of a 100-mile commute—Ms. Willis will be able to spend more time at her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she lives with her husband and a “menagerie” that includes dogs, cats and horses.
“I feel really fortunate,” she said. “It’s been quite a ride.”