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Convocation Address 2014
Kristine Webb headshot

Kristine Wiest Webb

Distinguished Professor

Professor Department of Exceptional, Deaf and Interpreter Education

College of Education and Human Services

Good Morning!

As a member of the University of North Florida faculty, I am honored to address President Delaney, Provost Traynham, UNF administration, award recipients, students, faculty, staff, and honored guests. In the midst of so many talented, diverse, and gifted colleagues, to stand as your representative is humbling and awe-inspiring. Fellow finalist, Dr. Jeff Michelman, you have my utmost respect and regard because of the talents you embody daily. I gratefully thank you for this honor, and I pledge to uphold your confidence for the remaining part of my collegiate career.


I also extend my undying gratitude to my husband, David, who has supported me, served as a soft shoulder, and reminded me how critical it is to balance my professional life with adventure, new experiences, and family. My daughter, Nikki, is a strong, intelligent, and caring woman, and with her husband, Tu, are wonderful parents to Evan, and new grandson who will be born in December. I thank our oldest and dearest friends, the McKnights for traveling from Colorado. We began our professional lives with you, and your support has been ever-present.


Our Department of Exceptional, Deaf, and Interpreter Education under the incredible leadership of Dr. Karen Patterson provides collegiality, collaboration, and professionalism. I am grateful for the support of Interim Dean Marsha Lupi and colleagues in the College of Education and Human Services.


Students of UNF-thank you for opening your lives to me. You provide the reasons for rising every day. And finally, thanks to the dedicated staff of the UNF Student Accessibility Services and Division of Student Affairs. I had the amazing experience of working with you for eight years. Your work has truly helped change the culture about disabilities and diversity on campus.


As a high school teacher in New Mexico and Colorado for many years, I had no inkling that my career would veer into higher education. My passion for supporting high school students with disabilities as they reached for employment or college was sparked by the dismal numbers of my students who did not pursue work or further education after high school. What started as a classroom project to ensure that those of my students who wanted to attend college could strategically map their way toward their goals has shaped all of my past and current scholarship, service, and teaching at UNF. As a nation, we are seeing increased enrollment in colleges, universities, and technical schools among our students with disabilities, a scenario mirrored at UNF.


I would like you to join me on a "tour" of our UNF campus. You will note ever-growing numbers of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, along with their interpreters or captionists. UNF historically has a large number of individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing among the state universities in Florida, numbers most likely related to our proximity to our state school, FSDB in St. Augustine and our fine Deaf Education and Interpreter Educations programs. You may spot a group of students with sophisticated wheelchairs or mobility devices. UNF serves students who have cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, lupus, amputated limbs, and other physical and medical disabilities. You may see students who use a white cane or service animals because of blindness or low vision. You also may note that our geese population regularly torments our service dogs on campus! The disabilities we have noticed are what typically comes to mind when we talk about individuals with disabilities-those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, those who are blind or have low vision, and those who have obvious physical or medical conditions. As recent as twenty years ago, we would not have witnessed these individuals on our campus; however, advances in education, medicine, and technology have opened the path to college for these students.


The numbers of students with sensory, physical, and medical disabilities are relatively low when compared with the total numbers of UNF students with disabilities, many of whom have invisible disabilities. We have hundreds of students with Attention Deficit Disorders, a variety of learning disabilities, emotional disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. Others have health or medical disabilities that are not obvious. Again, two decades ago, many of these students would not have had access to a university.


A growing number of our students have autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Dr. Paul Wehman from Virginia Commonwealth University describes this growth as the autism tsunami that has come to our universities across the nation. At UNF, we have experienced this same growth, and we have developed a program called THRIVE for the UNF population with autism. When we began THRIVE, we had six participants, and at the beginning of our current academic year, we are approaching sixty students with ASD on campus. These students come to us with extraordinarily high grades from high school, incredible ACT or SAT scores, and many have well-developed knowledge and skills in particular areas. What an array of talents and abilities they bring to our university. Many of the THRIVE students need support in the areas of communication and social interaction, independent living, and discovery of a career that is an appropriate match for them. Although many of the UNF students in THRIVE routinely use the accommodations offered by the SAS, they also may require support that falls beyond the accommodations through the SAS. THRIVE was initiated when three graduate students, Michelle Castanos, Tara Rowe, and Joanna Ale, approached me with this concern; students with ASD took advantage of their services through the SAS, but they needed support in communications, independence, and career decisions. Through these graduate students' blood, sweat, tears, and passions, THRIVE was born, and working with students in THRIVE, along with graduate students and volunteers, has been among my most fulfilling professional experiences.


Our "tour" has included the many UNF students with disabilities; however, we also observe other historically underrepresented groups, other important members of diverse groups. We have greater numbers of non-Caucasian students, international students, students who are non-Christian, students with lower SES, and students who are English Language Learners, and UNF has established a variety of services and supports to provide these students support. Our university is one of a handful of universities to have a resource center for students who identify as LGBT, and we have an active Women's Center that advances gender activities, events and ideas. Other support services are available to facilitate the transition to college and retention through degree programs. We have appropriated services to ensure our students have access to support. With all of these institutional reinforcements, why do some students feel disenfranchised, unattached, or separated from our university? I would like to explore that question with you today.


I have spent the majority of my professional life investigating and advocating for access for students with disabilities access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Access has been my mantra for many years, but at this point in my career, I'm asking myself, "is access enough?" or is access an act of checking off a box, dusting off our collective hands, and moving on to other issues?" As I have pondered this notion of access, I considered just what the word denoted and implied.


Access is defined as a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone, a way of being able to use or get something, permission or the right to enter, get near, or make use of something or to have contact with someone. Getting near? Having the right to enter? Is that really the best we can do for students with disabilities and all students who are at risk on our campus? After a professional lifetime of promoting access, I came to the conclusion that my efforts needed a complete overhaul!


I considered the work of Hurtado and colleagues as I pondered my shifts in thinking. Hurtado suggested that institutions who admit large numbers of historically underrepresented groups seem to intuitively realize their successes and strengths are dependent on the successes of their diverse students. This brought to mind the words of Jane Addams, the social advocate who established the Hull House during the last century for people who were poor or disadvantaged. "We have learned to say that the good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by any person or any one class. But we have not yet learned to add to that statement, that unless all people and all classes contribute to a good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth having." With this wisdom in mind, I contemplated the ideas I wanted to advance to ensure that all students not only gained access but became an integral part of our campus.


Should I champion more tolerance for differences on campus? Tolerance implies a willingness to accept beliefs, abilities, customs, practices, or habits other than your own. John F. Kennedy stated "Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others." Yes, tolerance is a critical component in our efforts to ensure diverse students find success, but I continued to explore.

Civility-certainly! Forni proposed that "civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness, and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, and good manners."


Acceptance? We think of acceptance as the state of being received as adequate or suitable for an organization, which in our case, is a student as the beneficiary of a favorable reception on our campus. I concluded that although tolerance, civility, and acceptance were critical components for students with disabilities and other diverse groups, they did not reflect the immersion I was seeking to foster within myself and others.


I mulled over the history of the disability movement that began with great energy in the 1960s with the term, normalization, which represented an effort to remove individuals with disabilities from institutions into their communities. This dramatic time served as the foundation for inclusion for people with disabilities.


Mcleskey, Rosenberg, and Westling (2013), described inclusion as a philosophy of education where students with disabilities are valued members of the community. As I considered what inclusion might look like on our campus, not only for students with disabilities, but for students who identify with one or more oppressed groups, I had these thoughts. What could we do as a body to ensure students with diverse identities were included on our campus? Could I promote the statement that these students belonged to the campus community, that they actively participated in both academic and social activities and events, and as they needed support to guarantee their inclusion, supports would be there? Could we structure our campus to ensure students would authentically belong as valuable members? Could we venture beyond access, tolerance, civility, and acceptance to inclusion? Could we attempt to incorporate the process described by Howard Winters in which we gradually increase the number of people included in the term 'we' or 'us' while at the same time decrease those 'you' or 'them' until we distinguish that group? I believe we have the capacity to perform this bequest to our students, but as the late Maya Angelou proclaimed, "nothing will work unless you do." I held her words close as I developed recommendations about expanding beyond mere access to campus inclusion.


  1. During the past semesters, I have asked my students during class, in small groups, on Blackboard, and individually to share what I can do to expand and increase their learning during the time they are in my class. Ask them how they think this information could be applied in their adult lives. By doing these frequent probes with them, I believe we
    1. (a) demonstrate that their academic success is of paramount importance, and
    2. (b) we gather critical data that can improve our own teaching. I am reminded of a student who was blind who suggested that describing pictures and graphs during my lecture was helpful to him and would assist others in understanding these visual tools.
  2. Maintain consistent and high standards for all of your students, including those from diverse groups. If they use accommodations, these assist them in attaining your class objectives. Accommodations don't change your expectations, but rather the way in which the student receives or gives information. Never ask what the disability is, tell them they look "normal," or draw attention to their accommodations.
  3. Consider modeling how you learn important information. Model your "teacher think," any strategies you use to retain information, mnemonics or tricks you use to remember material, and how YOU problem-solve. Think of multiple ways to present information, confident that you will impact a wider range of students.
  4. Inspire participation and membership among your students. I believe a key component of our inclusion aims should be that we see every student as a valued participant. In my role as Director of the SAS, I routinely had colleagues contact me with the phrase, "Kris, I have one of your students in my class." Ponder how we can ensure students believe they are significant partners in learning rather than feeling detached.
  5. Encourage all students to take leadership in your classes and related activities. Doing so will stimulate all students' development and advancement, but will be fundamental to diverse students. By inciting leadership, you launch students into deeper levels of erudition and sophistication, and certainly inclusion!
  6. Finally, for inclusion to occur, we must attract and retain diverse faculty and administration. Many of the steps we implement with students could be useful to ensure diverse faculty are authentically included and fulfilled at UNF.


    At this point in my career, I will invest in inclusion on our campus because it will improve our university's climate, advance more students to post-college success, and heighten access, awareness, civility, tolerance, and acceptance. More importantly, boundless numbers of students will be included members of our community.

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you today!