Urging students to gain respect for themselves by showing compassion towards others, Mr. Dennis Heaphy, one of the country’s leading advocates for people with disabilities, spoke to the Phillips Academy community at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting (ASM). Mr. Heaphy, a quadriplegic who holds positions on the boards of multiple non-profit organizations for the advancement of low-income and disabled individuals, stressed throughout his speech that disabilities affect everyone. “It is the only minority population that anyone can join at any moment,” he said. Pointing out that many disabilities which affect young people, such as severe asthma, diabetes, and learning disabilities, are not noticeable from the outside, Mr. Heaphy stated that these disabilities should nevertheless not be regarded lightly. He noted, “Everyone in this room is different in some way. That doesn’t mean I am defective, and no one in this room is either.” Mr. Heaphy began his speech by asking those in the student body who recognized the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, to raise their hands, and was disappointed by the small number of students who did. In response to students’ apathy, he said, “Disabilities are complicated… but they affect you too.” Mr. Heaphy challenged students to “see the big picture, embrace yourselves.” He told them, “The only way you will be able to see yourself as valuable is to recognize other people as valuable despite or because of their differences.” In his speech, Mr Heaphy explained the way he felt soon after the swimming accident that left him quadriplegic. “If you had asked me when I first became disabled if I wanted to die, my answer would have been yes. I felt guilty. I didn’t want to be a burden on my family and on society, and I didn’t want to live like this,” he said. “Thankfully, I had people to teach me that my disability is as much about attitude as it is about my wheelchair. It is my interaction with other people and my opinion of myself that determines how disabled I am.” After his speech, Mr. Heaphy met with students in the Office of Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD), many of whom had a personal connection to the topic. “Most of the kids here don’t have to deal with it,” Alison Armstrong ’03, who has a mentally disabled sister, noted. Christina Hartmann ’03, who suffers from a hearing impairment, could also relate to Mr. Heaphy’s message. “The problem that I have with this school is that nobody seems to talk about it,” she said. “It is like, I am just normal. I mean, I am normal, but in a different way.” While Mr. Heaphy sees his disability as an opportunity to educate others, he acknowledged that this role can also be a burden. As Hartmann explained, “People have told me that I changed their whole perspective. That is always nice to hear, but at the same time, that is not my job.” Despite his varied commitments, Mr. Heaphy devotes the majority of his time to advocating for the rights of the disabled community in social, religious, and legal arenas. A frequent speaker at conferences hosted by the National Alliance of Housing and Urban Development, the American Public Health Association, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, he works with developers, lawyers and politicians to ensure that disabled people have fair access to employment, homes, businesses, and places of worship. Dan Koh ’03 was instrumental in bringing Mr. Heaphy to campus, as he became concerned about the plight of the disabled when he spent the summer after his Lower year working on a Brace Student Fellowship presentation entitled “People with Disabilities: A Look at the Challenges of Everyday Life.” Koh continued his exploration of the topic through his Upper and Senior years with the help of an Abbot grant. “[Mr. Heaphy] is one of the greatest public speakers I have ever heard,” Koh said. “He is so passionate about his cause… he really touched me. You can always have a greater awareness about pressing issues in society, and if anyone can educate the students here, he can.” Koh brought up the idea of a visit from Mr. Heaphy with Chaplain Maria Cataldo, his Abbot Association grant advisor, in the fall of last year. Mr. Heaphy earned two master’s degrees from Boston University, one in Public Health/Health Law, and the second in Divinity. He then went on to earn a third master’s in Counseling Processes and Risk Prevention from Harvard University. In 1995, Mr. Heaphy won the Marie Feltin Award for leaders in the disability community, and in 2000, he received the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Award for exemplary service in the field. He has had 11 years of experience as a spiritual counselor, encouraging the personal growth of elderly, homeless, and disabled populations. Mr. Heaphy has also counseled disenfranchised groups such as migrant workers and at-risk urban youth and aided in the spiritual and economic development of people in Nicaragua and Belize.
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