Temple's Bryen hardwired to focus on disability rights
Diane Nelson Bryen, executive director of Temple's Institute on Disabilities, with ACES (Augmentative Communication and Empowerment Supports) program graduate Bob Williams during the ACES closing ceremonies last month. Bryen is founder of the ACES program. Williams is the institute's scholar-in-residence this year, and served as deputy assistant secretary for disability, aging and long-term care policy and as the commissioner of developmental disabilities in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration.
"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."
Diane Nelson Bryen concludes all of her e-mail messages with that quotation from Dante. Her work as executive director of Temple's Institute on Disabilities is driven by her belief that you can't go anywhere truly remarkable if you are -- or are in -- neutral.
Almost continuously, Bryen is in overdrive.
That's how she went from being a conventional classroom teacher in a Philadelphia public school to doing community organizing around issues of civil rights and disability rights during the summers.
"I really found just teaching very stifling," she said. "I loved being in action, being in the community."
That's how she completed her master's degree and her doctorate, both in special education, from Temple.
"I'm at Temple 40 years this year. I'm incredibly invested in the future of Temple," she said.
That's how she went from taking a 12-month fill-in stint as director of the Institute on Disabilities in 1991 and turning it into her life's work. And that's how she helped the institute achieve national and international prominence as a leader in disability rights and research.
"It's everything a hyperactive kid could ask for," Bryen, a Moorestown, N.J., resident, said of her work with the institute, which marks its 30th anniversary this year. "It's working with people. It's working in management. It's working in policy. It's teaching.
"I took it on for one year as acting director," she continued. "It was the most challenging, exciting position I could ever imagine."
This has been a banner year for Bryen and the institute, which offers initiatives on advocacy, assistive technology, criminal justice/victims' rights, disability studies, leadership training, inclusive education and research.
Consider the following:
In February, Bryen and colleagues Rosangela Boyd and Kevin Cohen further expanded the institute's international reputation as a leader in the use of assistive technology for people with disabilities when they spent a week presenting communication and self-advocacy seminars in Johannesburg, South Africa. In past years, Bryen has done the same at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas and Haifa University in Israel, hosting annual town meetings for Arabs and Jews whose greatest commonality was their disability.
In March, Bryen secured a private donor to fund the establishment of the University Center on Disabilities in Israel. Based at the University of Haifa, the center is the first of its kind in the Middle East. It is the second international university center on disabilities affiliated with the American University Centers on Disability.
In April, Bryen, who also earned her bachelor's degree at Temple, accepted the Stauffer Award, presented by Temple's General Alumni Association. The award is given to a faculty member for exemplary service to Temple and aptly complements Bryen's prestigious 1988 Great Teacher Award.
In May, Bryen hosted a gala 30th-anniversary celebration for the institute in the University's historic Mitten Hall. Fittingly, it was a "people first" celebration as the institute's staff saluted established, emerging and future leaders in the disability rights movement before a crowd of more than 250 well-wishers.
In June, in what was the culmination of a decade of work led by Bryen's group, the institute hosted a National Summit for Equal Justice to explore issues related to people with developmental disabilities who are victims of crimes or accused of crimes. At the summit, a national alliance comprising representatives from 15 states was formed to address issues of victims' rights, equal access to court systems, and the education of criminal-justice professionals such as attorneys and police officers.
In August, the institute presented its 17th ACES (Augmentative Communication and Empowerment Supports) program, in which adults with significant speech and physical disabilities learn to communicate using assistive technology. Bryen founded the on-campus summer program, which includes instruction in disability rights and empowerment issues. The program has welcomed participants from 20 states, 12 foreign countries and five continents since 1987.
And this month, in what Bryen calls a "crowning achievement," Temple debuts a 12-credit graduate certificate in disability studies. The course of study explores the historical, cultural and socio-political challenges and accomplishments of the disability community and culture.
"I never imagined I would be doing such amazing work," Bryen said.
Bryen, while admitting that it's been a banner year for the institute, nevertheless said there's more work to do -- at the international, national and local levels. That includes the Institute on Disabilities. When she took the helm of the institute, one of her goals was to have a truly inclusive workplace. She's still working on it.
"We're really diverse with respect to disability. But we're not there with racial and ethnic differences yet," she said.
Nationally, unemployment rates for people with disabilities are substantial, Americans with disabilities are still landing in institutions, a majority of children who have only a physical disability are not in inclusive classrooms, and the national survey of victims of crime doesn't even recognize disability, she noted.
"The survey doesn't include the question, 'Are you a person with a disability?'" said Bryen, who said she views the world through the lens of a person with a disability. "They ask race, age, gender. But we're not being counted.
Internationally, the issues and goals are similar, she said.
"I want to pull together international forums to address these issues globally," said Bryen, noting that she'd like to expand her own involvement to a number of countries, including, perhaps, India. "I enjoy being in places where I'm personally stretched, in situations that stress my comfort zone.
"We recognize that disability is a global issue -- from post-apartheid South Africa to Israel to India. And people everywhere have the same dreams. All of our research, all of our work, is grounded in policy that has an impact on people's lives.
"My belief is that you change systems and create societal change one person at a time," she added. "Each of us can, and must, start with ourselves and know that one person can make a difference."
-By Barbara Baals