Guest speakers hit home on importance of inclusion for all

By: Henri Freeman
May 6, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For more than a decade, Allan McLeod has traveled here to speak to Penn State students about his experiences using a motorized wheelchair and the role leisure has played in his life.

“The main reason I come back, is that by doing so, it affords me the opportunity to show by my actions and explain through my story, that persons with a disability such as a spinal cord injury (SCI) and especially a high-level SCI resulting in tetraplegia, can and do have meaningful, productive, satisfying, fun and happy lives, both on personal and professional levels,” McLeod said.

This spring, McLeod, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and chief compliance officer at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, returned for his final visit before his retirement. He was joined by Jeff Sanders, a 2016 Penn State graduate who underwent a leg amputation while serving as a U.S. Marine in Iraq.

The pair shared their experiences with students enrolled in Inclusive Leisure Services, RPTM 277, which focuses on leisure services for people from underrepresented groups and related professional, legal and ethical issues. John Dattilo, professor of recreation, park and tourism management, instructs the course.

“I felt that I could be a visual reinforcement to the message that John was trying to teach his students,” Sanders said. “It can be difficult to understand someone else's misfortune by only hearing about it, but when you actually see it, and see what they overcome daily, it becomes much clearer.”

Penn State alumnus Jeff Sanders with his mother, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush following his injury in Iraq while serving in the U.S. Marines. 

Image: Photo provided

As part of the course, students are required to participate in a wheelchair simulation assignment, which includes using a rented wheelchair for at least a half a day. Students then write about their experiences. The goal is to help students understand the importance of universal design and accessibility, particularly as it relates to the field of leisure and recreation.

“The goal of this course is to help students understand the value of inclusion and diversity, develop positive attitudes and ethical behaviors toward all people regardless of their characteristics, and acquire knowledge and skills so they provide respectful and welcoming services,” Dattilo said. “This course is designed to encourage students to support all community members in experiencing meaningful and enjoyable leisure.”

For student Richard Abreu, hearing directly from McLeod and Sanders helped prepare him for his career in hotel or resort management.

“It was great to hear the stories of each guest speaker, and how they overcame difficult situations in their lives to get to where they are now. What I enjoyed the most from each of them was hearing their recommendations to us as future leisure professionals on how we can improve our services for people with disabilities,” Abreu said.

In 1986, McLeod was in an accident that resulted in a diagnosis of complete motor and incomplete sensory quadriplegia. He enjoys various recreation activities, including attending concerts, sporting events, and spending time outdoors, either in his backyard, neighborhood or touring Valley Forge Park. He also enjoys visiting historic sites and state and national parks.

“I hope students learn from my story that a disability, though perhaps an end to your life as you knew and experienced it, it is not the end of your life. You can still, if you want and put your mind, body and heart into it, have a long, productive and successful life,” McLeod said. “Persons with disabilities still enjoy many of the same things they did prior to becoming disabled and which are the same kind of things that non-disabled persons enjoy — learning, reading, playing and listening to music, playing and watching sports, going to concerts, going to sporting events, traveling, dinning out, sunshine, strolling in the park, and even sex. We are no different, except that we have disability.”

Sanders is currently a stay-at-home dad and offensive line coach for the Unionville High School football team. He is also pursuing a career in law enforcement. He previously worked at the Centre County YMCA while attending Penn State.

“I hope students learn from my story to not take life for granted. At any moment it can change drastically,” Sanders said. “Also, it can be really tough overcoming adversity. By wanting to help, by pursuing a career in recreational therapy or wanting to work with people with disabilities, it can be a very humbling experience and gratifying career.”

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