Disability is Diversity: Dr. Christie L. Gilson Shares her Story

February 20, 2013

In March 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Christie L. Gilson, an Assistant Professor of Education at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to serve on the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Dr. Gilson, who is blind, is the first visually impaired member of the Board. 

Dr. Gilson knows first-hand the challenges a disability can create, but cites stubbornness and a great support system as keys to her success.

“My parents knew I was going to be visually impaired from 3 months old,” says Dr. Gilson. “They took a very practical approach. I learned Braille at an early age. I had a lot of great educators. And I’m very stubborn and don’t want to quit on anything.”

A former Fulbright scholar herself, Dr. Gilson points to her experience abroad as a source of courage and independence-- two critical characteristics for success as a disabled person.

“It is a sense of sheer excitement when you’re abroad and you’re getting around on your own when you have a disability,” says Dr. Gilson. “Once I was in a village in southern China and I wanted to go on a rickshaw ride. Here I am speaking hardly any Mandarin, being driven around, and thinking ‘God keep me safe!’ But I did it. I did it alone.”

“To survive adventurous things makes us strong inside. And I think people with disabilities can use that strength somewhere else―when people don’t believe in us and don’t think we can.”

Tasked with shining a light on disability, Dr. Gilson knew the staggering statistics that had to be addressed-- unemployment and underemployment rates of people with disabilities in the United States stood between 45 and 70 percent. Dr. Gilson calls these statistics “deplorable.”

“Just because you have a disability does not mean you can’t do an exchange program,” states Dr. Gilson. “Fulbright is an elite program and some people would say that people with disabilities don’t fit the mold. But for someone who has done a Fulbright program with a disability… it gives us credibility. [The disabled] have to be exceptionally good to even get an interview so anything we can do to make our resume stand out is a good thing.”

“The Board and State Department have been tremendous at allowing us to see disability as an aspect of diversity. Disability is a way that we can learn from each other, and I’m proud of what we have accomplished. ”

Dr. Gilson has authored or co-authored numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters in special education and disability studies. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study higher education for students with disabilities in Hong Kong in 2006.

She teaches English to blind adults in China using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and has mentored youth with disabilities in Germany, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, and the United States. She received a B.S.W. from Illinois State University and an M.S.W. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.