Alumni Association Excellence in Public Service Award
Director, Institute on Disabilities, Associate Professor of Education
School of Health and Human Services
It is possible to quantify Jan Nisbet's work as the founding director of the UNH Institute on Disability by counting the number of research reports produced, projects and programs initiated, policies changed, committees chaired—and tens of millions of dollars in grants acquired over the past 18 years.
To truly understand the scope of her work, however, it might be better to start with just one person. One person like Jeffrey Williamson of Manchester, N.H. Williamson was born with very significant disabilities, including hydrocephaly. In 1988, at the age of 17, he was still confined to an elementary school classroom with other special education students who could neither walk nor talk.
That was the year when Nisbet started the New Hampshire Leadership Series, meetings designed to inspire and equip participants to become advocates for family members with disabilities. Janet Williamson still doesn't know why she was invited to attend the series at the institute. She hardly felt like a leader.
At the first meeting, Nisbet challenged participants to focus on a positive vision for the future. When it came to envisioning inclusion in a regular classroom, however, Williamson knew the university professor couldn't possibly be talking about her Jeff. Nisbet had no way of knowing all that was "wrong" with him according to school reports.
Still, nothing could be worse than the status quo. Jeff was so unhappy that he sometimes needed two aides to prevent him from hurting himself. At the leadership meetings his mother got an important message from Nisbet: "You are the most powerful advocate for your child." Gradually Williamson became able to picture her son in a regular high school class by thinking in a "so what" kind of way—So what if he drools? When presented with the school district's annual plan for his education, she was dismayed by its miniscule goals, like trying to extend his attention span beyond three seconds in the task of sorting white envelopes. Williamson refused to sign the plan—and the district took her to court.
"There's no research, or none that is well designed anyway, that supports the practice of segregating kids with disabilities," says Nisbet. The first federal law supporting the inclusion of special ed students in regular classrooms had come in 1975, 14 years earlier. Williamson naturally asked Nisbet to serve as an expert witness in court. But Nisbet declined, saying, "I have to work with the school systems. I can't be their adversary and continue to work with them to change educational practices."
Williamson surprised herself as much as anyone else when she returned to Nisbet's office, trembling from head to toe, with subpoena in hand. Looking at this graduate of the institute's first Leadership Series, Nisbet felt more pride than anger. She became a key witness in the case.
Two years and two appeals later, Jeffrey Williamson became the first student with significant disabilities to attend regular classes at Manchester's West High School. One of his favorite classes was economics, where he helped restock candy in the student-run store—in the company of other students instead of an aide. Today at 34, Jeff works three hours a day at a packaging plant. Furthermore, with assistance from another one of Nisbet's projects, the Center for Housing and New Community Economics, Jeff not only owns his own condo but has chosen his own housemates as well as his personal assistants. He also uses a special computer to communicate and recently audited a college course on criminal justice.
"In New Hampshire," notes Williamson, now an institute staff member, "Jan has pulled together all the different pieces of peoples' lives." As a matter of fact, the state ranks in the top five nationally on several measures of the services and support offered to people with disabilities, thanks in no small part to Nisbet's efforts. And that's where Nisbet's impressive numbers come in. The $80 million in grants, the nationally recognized research reports, the collaborations with state agencies and communities, and the network of people like Janet Williamson with their positive visions. All these factors take Jeff's story, that story of one, and multiply it many times over.