As she searched through a wooden desk looking for pictures of her two children, Associate Professor Celest Martin remembered the day her son was diagnosed with autism 26 years ago at the age of 2.
“I cried, but being an academic, the next day I went to the library and got all the books I could on autism,” Martin said. “The irony of me, who is such a word person, having a child who was going to have a communication disorder boggled my mind. I was scared.”
Martin has taught at the University of Rhode Island for 37 years and has continued expanding on her passion for rhetoric, composition and disability studies. Originally hired into URI’s English Department, she joined the Journalism faculty in 2009, and has taught students the art of creative nonfiction and memoir writing over the years.
This May will mark the beginning of her retirement where she hopes to continue her involvement with the disability community of Rhode Island.
Nearly 15 years ago, she co-founded the South Kingstown Farm School, which is now the Independent Transition Academy located in Independence Square on the URI Campus. Martin realized her son, Andrew Lamson, would be most successful in a hands-on environment and says this project was one she was most proud of.
“I figured the only way for him to get what he needed was [for me] to be on everything I could be on and have a voice in things,” Martin said.
She remains involved in Rhode Island’s disability community by serving as Vice Chair of the Rhode Island Developmental Disability Council (RIDDC). She is part of their Policy and Advocacy Council, which monitors state and federal legislation aiming to educate and inform policymakers. Martin also contributes to a community blog, promoting educational materials and resources for families regarding disabilities on their website.
As a professor, Martin said a lot more has be done to improve the way students with disabilities function and learn in a college-level setting. She considers certain accommodations like giving extra time on tests, assignments and portfolios to be a good start.
“We need more training,” Martin said. “[The university] needs to have a person who goes to every department and explains the law first and then explains what an accommodation actually is.”
Having a child with Autism has allowed Martin to become more familiar with disabilities, and she said there’s nothing wrong with giving students extra time. Martin said by doing so, professors are leveling the playing field so that it’s fair to everyone.
“I think most professors, unless they have a family member with a disability or have had some real experience with it in their lives, it’s unfamiliar to them,” Martin said, “so it’s scary because we’re always afraid of the unknown.”
With years of experience and knowledge in writing and disability studies, Martin said she’s realized people living with disabilities are just hardwired differently. She wants the community to understand that almost everyone has something they wish they could be better at and the disability community isn’t any less intelligent.
“It’s just another way to be human,” Martin said.