What does “celebrity” mean to you?

I worked in publishing for almost 15 years. I worked with some authors whose names will never be known outside their specialized field, and I worked with others who made significant royalties from their book sales, whose names a layperson might recognize. Whether their reputation was big or small, there were many who enjoyed some level of celebrity. They did great work that contributed to the advancement of their field.

My job involved some travel to conferences where my authors would present on their work and often mention their book. That was lots of fun, especially when they were well-known and people would come to their session or our exhibit and want to talk or even get their autograph. To some people (often me!), those expert authors were celebrities.

I started my work with Think College long before I accepted the position as Knowledge Translation Associate for the National Coordinating Center. I was the editor for Meg Grigal and Debra Hart’s book, Think College: Postsecondary Education Options for Students with Intellectual Disability. We met several times during the development of the manuscript to review progress. One of the best places to do that was at a conference, and my favorite was always the annual AUCD conference. In addition to enjoying many outstanding restaurants and events in DC, we would talk about the book and Debra and Meg would catch me up on the latest higher education policy. During our conversations, numerous people would wave hello to Debra and Meg, grab a quick hug, or stop them in the hotel lobby, and they always made time for people. (They still do!) It didn’t take me long to realize they were celebrities in their own right.

By working with them, then and now, I’ve had a chance to meet and work with other celebrities. In the vast network of inclusive college programs, if you mention Cate Weir’s name, people just beam. “Cate is the best," “Cate was so helpful while we were starting our program,” or “Without Cate’s help, my son wouldn’t have made the decision to go to college.”

I’ve had a chance to talk with and listen to Madeleine Will, former Assistant Secretary of Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) at the US Department of Education and long-time advocate for inclusive education. Madeleine contributed the foreword to Meg & Debra’s book, so I’ve known her for a long time. She might not remember working with me, and that’s fine, but I knew back then that Madeleine was pretty important to the field of inclusive higher education and her contribution to the book was special.

These days in my job at Knowledge Translation Manager, I oversee all of our publications, one of which is the 2021 Report on Model Accreditation Standards for Higher Education Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability which will be distributed to Congress this spring. I’m working on a report that will be read by the United States Secretary of Education, the Senate HELP Committee, and United States House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor. I think that’s so cool! Equally as cool is that I get to work with Stephanie Smith Lee on this report. She’s another celebrity in this field. I mean, she was the Director of Office of Special Education worked on numerous Congressional committees, serves as Co-Chair of the Inclusive Higher Education Committee, National Down Syndrome Congress Senior Policy Advisor, and was Chair of the Accreditation Workgroup for the National Coordinating Center from 2010-2020, now serving as past Chair. She’s received numerous awards and served on countless national and local committees-- all extraordinary accomplishments. Simply put, Stephanie has dedicated her life to improving opportunities and outcomes for people with intellectual disability.

Not everyone I work with has the same level of experience that these people mentioned above do, but most of them have spent their careers doing the same thing they have: ensuring that any student with ID who wants to go to college, can. And they can work and live in the community, have meaningful relationships, and have access to all the things everyone else does. As we celebrate being awarded the third National Coordinating Center grant, it’s very clear that this hard work and dedication has been paying off. There are nearly 300 inclusive college programs where students can go on to pursue their education after high school, and thousands of students have taken advantage of the opportunity. We still have plenty of work to do, but as I look around at my team and realize the enormous amount of passion, knowledge, and dedication, I realize I am surrounded by celebrity just about every day.

About the post author: Rebecca (aka Becky) Lazo has been doing knowledge translation for Think College since 2016. She was recently promoted to Knowledge Translation Manager and is super excited to continue to spread the word about inclusive higher education for people with intellectual disability (ID), and educate people about the opportunities that exist for people with ID after high school.