Within the corridors of Dunford Hall, you find the friendly staff of Student Disability Services. From the moment you enter the space, you immediately feel welcome; from the staff at the front desk to the décor, you know you’re in great company. This company includes David Ndiaye.
David, the director of Student Disability Services, has agreed to be the next subject of the Inspire Leadership series and if there is one thing that gleaned from the interview with David, it’s how much he cares and wants to share the story he and his staff are crafting in SDS.
Growing up in West Africa, David Ndiaye came to the United States to pursue an education in international business. He worked as an international student ambassador at Winthrop University in South Carolina and went on to pursue his MBA. He got his start in the field as the coordinator of testing as a graduate assistant at Winthrop, not really understanding what disability services was.
“Accessibility wasn’t something that really crossed my mind. Where I came from, accessibility was not even part of the conversation, at least that I was aware of.”
Through the Testing Center, he proctored exams and worked with note-takers. It’s in this role that David started to fully understand the impact that disability services have on student and breaking down barriers.
“I remember one of the first students I worked with, she was blind and had a service animal. She was very, very bright. We worked closely with her to provide the material she needed in a different format to ensure she had access.”
That is what David always comes back to: breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of each person receiving the same education. He compares it to running track: Imagine having a clear path to the finish line, but another person have to run hurdles. The journey to that finish line comes with barriers that the other person does not experience. SDS works to remove the “hurdles” from student’s experience to ensure that each student has a chance at success.
In a trip to Senegal, David had the chance to visit the Renaissance School for the Deaf, a school responsible for educating children with hearing disabilities. He remarks that seeing that type of progress in the country was very impactful and encouraging.
“At the school, they learn American Sign Language and my wife, who is fluent in ASL, was able to communicate with them to learn more about what they do. It was such a joy to see the students interact with us and show us what they learned. You see that there’s a segment of the population that was somewhat forgotten about that now has access to education, that are bettering themselves.”
This prompts David to ask the question “How many discoveries are we missing because of the barriers we have set?”
“If you don’t have access to education, and the only reason you don’t have access is because of a barrier that is presented, what if we remove the barrier and allow you to be able to perform and show what you know? What if the next person to cure cancer currently doesn’t have access to education?”
The same can be said when it comes to David’s leadership style. Taking inspiration from his own mentors, David will push people to try new things that they may not have. This pushing also includes pushing himself. Recently, David has been serving as treasurer of TNAHEAD, a state-wide organization disability office across the state can partner and communicate with each other, share resources and push access. Additionally, David was selected to participate in the Lean: Applied to Business Practices week-long training session with only three other UT Knoxville participants.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve had good mentors. Where I’m from, you have to sit with elders every now and then. Elders will question you about who you are and help you understand the culture, understand integrity, understand respect. Of course, at the time you’re thinking, ‘you’re wasting your time. But once you leave and you’re by yourself, then you realize there is a lot of value in some of the information they’ve shared. My upbringing was a good foundation.” David goes on to say that his mentors have been direct and honest, they’ve provided support when needed, and they’ve seen things in him that he didn’t see in himself.
When looking for ways to advance yourself, David suggests podcasts, books, TEDx presentations, and reaching out to a potential mentor.
“It may not be ‘what is your day-to-day like?’ It may be ‘How do you handle some of the situations and scenarios that are presented to you?’ or ‘How do you lead an entire operation, division, team?’ There are a lot of things that can be learned from others who have already been there.”
David also stresses the importance of listening to others. He explains that you cannot ignore feedback from, not only the people you work with but from people who might not work with you.
“Students have a lot of good feedback that we don’t always consider and it helpful to hear from them.”
After all, we are here to serve students and help them achieve their goals. The disability community is made of such a variety of individuals. Each student is their own person and is capable of high performance. We provide access, but our students are the ones who perform and do great things. David shows great leadership at the university in his role by putting the students first. He shares these words with his colleagues and with our community, “You don’t have to have a title or specific position to be a leader. Regardless of your position, you have leadership expectations.” One takeaway is that accessibility is everyone’s responsibility, so if you see something that is not accessible, speak up and address the issue.