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Carolyn Bailey Lewis

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Carolyn Bailey Lewis: Actively inspiring others

When a group of Ohio University employees from the President’s Advisory Council on Disability and Accessibility Planning (PACDAP) travels to Bowling Green State University in March to present a panel discussion on disability accessibility planning at the annual State of the State conference, among them will be Carolyn Bailey Lewis.

Lewis, an OHIO Scripps College of Communication’s professor and former general manager of PBS-affiliate WOUB, has dedicated nearly two decades to improving the lives of people with disabilities. The trip to the conference may rank high on some people’s lists of accomplishments, but for Lewis -- who wrote the group’s proposal -- it is just another milestone in her endless journey to help others.

“You’ve got to make connections and a good impression. That’s what I teach my students. Your first impression is your last impression,” Lewis said. Through her career in public broadcasting and station management both in West Virginia and Ohio, Lewis is most definitely connected. She engages everyone she meets, from PBS executives and TV personalities to the 15 to 20 young men and women she mentors.

“She’s very warm. You can tell she’s a very caring person. My first impression was not of a woman in a wheelchair. My first impression was this is a woman who is really engaged in the world around her,” said Dianne Bouvier, interim executive director of the Office of Institutional Equity.

Disability accessibility is a cause close to her heart because since 1995, Lewis herself has navigated her full and active life from a seated position. Her condition is the result of a spinal tumor and a subsequent surgery. ­

“The doctors told my husband if I went through the 18-hour surgery, if I made it out alive, I certainly wouldn’t walk again, I would probably be a vegetable for the rest of my life,” Lewis said.

Lewis emerged from the surgery and the two months of rehabilitation that followed transformed, both physically and mentally. I was given life, she said. She adjusted to life in a wheelchair with the motivation that she would use every day to make a difference.

“When I finally got my life back, I promised I would help others because I had been given another chance,” Lewis said. “That’s my motivation, just giving back.”

Athens City Council member and OHIO faculty member Steve Patterson is familiar with Lewis’ persistence and drive from their work together on the Athens City Commission on Disabilities. Lewis has served on the commission for the past four years, working to address accessibility concerns in the city. Patterson was elected to city council in 2012.

“I say she talks softly and carries a big stick,” Patterson said. “She’s friendly. She’s outgoing and is the kindest person I’ve ever met. But for the things that she’s passionate about in terms of making change, she’s heavy duty. She’ll go that extra mile to try to implement change or education. ”

In addition to working with the city, Lewis serves as co-chair PACDAP, which was formed by President Roderick J. McDavis. The group is charged with developing a comprehensive disability and accessibility plan for Ohio University. Co-chair Dianne Bouvier calls Lewis an advocate for change.

“She’s very vocal about letting people know what’s working and not working,” Bouvier, interim executive director of the Office for Institutional Equity, said. “She’s very passionate about making sure our community is open and barrier-free and people can get places if they need to get there or that they have the support that they need.” ­

Patterson says his relationship with Lewis has caused him to have her in the back of his mind when he is considering city accessibility. Even a casual run in with Lewis in the Uptown Business District can prompt a need for change.

“She points things out to me, that as a city official, I’ve never really noticed or recognized before,” Patterson.

Her scope isn’t confined to the city limits when it comes to addressing needs for the disabled. A regular traveler, Lewis is constantly reminded of the modifications necessary for people in wheelchairs to comfortably enjoy a hotel room.

“I’ve got a whole file of letters that I write back to hotel owners, even Mr. Marriott, to say ‘you know, I was in this hotel and your bed was too high’ or ‘the bathroom wasn’t just right’,” said Lewis. Unless people speak up, no one will ever know there’s a problem, she says. But it is the way in which she communicates the needs that gets the results she’s after.

“She is appropriately assertive,” laughs Bouvier.

Being assertive is the way Lewis knows change will happen. But as the saying goes, actions often speak louder than words. Bouvier notes Lewis’ active life means she is present in the community, visually reminding others what life is like for people with disabilities.

“She’s everywhere,” Bouvier said. “I see her everywhere. At campus events, like the President’s Convocation and athletic events, she’s a big supporter of the Bobcats. She is everywhere.”

Lewis says with the help of services such as Athens On Demand shuttle service, Catcab, and tools such as her power wheelchair, she’s able to continue to teach a full schedule, serve as a mentor through the Women’s Center and act as one of the hosts on WOUB-AM’s Conversations from Studio B radio program.

The upcoming trip to the conference in Bowling Green is just one on Lewis’ itinerary in the coming months. In late February, she’ll take a group of students to Washington D.C. for The 2014 Public Media Summit. She says she sees it as a chance to put learned theory into practical application.

“Pushing people forward, give them opportunities, that’s what makes them successful,” said Lewis.

In spite of her many commitments to others, Lewis finds time to recharge at her home in Athens. She loves TV, she says, and regularly watches shows like American Idol.

“I have always wanted to be on Jeopardy. I try out for it all the time. That’s one of my bucket list items,” Lewis said with an infectious grin. “I watch it every night and play along. Sometimes I get all the questions right, sometimes I don’t. But I always try.”

If Lewis were to ever end up on the game show, those who know her and her work at Ohio University won’t be surprised. They’ll likely just say they’re used to seeing the tireless advocate everywhere – even if it were on national television.

­This special Compass series highlights the ways in which Ohio University staff and faculty are living their passion while making a difference – on campus, in the community, in their fields, and around the world.