By: Aimee LaBrie
Photo credit: Peter Frey, UGA Marketing and Communications
Carol Britton Laws '07 recalls her dad taking her to the Rutgers campus in the late 1980s when she was a teenager. Having earned his undergraduate degree in Chemistry from Rutgers College, her father held onto a fondness for his alma mater. For Laws, the experience was similarly elating. "I remember going to the campus with him and just being overwhelmed with all the possibilities there."
When it was time to choose a university, Laws liked the familiarity of the campus and the ability to get home to Forked River on weekends. She chose Rutgers, and earned her BA in psychology and art history. After graduation, she did what most new grads do: she worked in a series of jobs, trying to find her way. "I was a waitress at Tumulty's Pub, and I ran a coffee house." One day, she answered an ad on a bulletin board for a family who had a son with autism. They were asking for someone who could offer after-school support. Laws met the family and accepted the position. "During the day, I spent time with the boy, and in the evenings and weekends, I worked at Health South Rehabilitation Hospital, an assisted living facility for adults with traumatic brain injury and cognitive disabilities."
In these two roles, she quickly learned the challenges faced by individuals with intellectual disabilities. "It's a life-long disability, and, as a society, we tend to have very low expectations about what a person with this type of challenge can achieve." Her growing understanding of the need for others to ensure that those with intellectual disability have access to basic human rights inspired Britton (Laws) to return to school for her MSW degree. "I saw that I could be an advocate---that I could help to change attitudes about the capabilities of people with intellectual disabilities."
In 2004, she again returned to Rutgers. "The very first class I had for the MSW program was in the basement in Campbell Hall which was the dorm where I first lived," she recalls. "The building hadn't changed at all."
The move back into academia was odd at first because many of her classmates were just out of undergrad, but she soon discovered what she already knew from being in the working world; she had found her niche. "I started my graduate degree with more clarity than I did as an 18 year old. I connected immediately with the policy track. My classmates and I bonded, and built close relationships during our time taking classes and working together."
As far as direct impact, she cites Bill Waldman as one of her key mentors. "Professor Waldman was the faculty member whom I had the most administrative policy and planning courses with. He was instrumental in helping me to see that I could work in a university setting. In my second year field placement, he helped me get a placement at the The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities," she says. "Dr. Sarah McMahon, my professor a social research methods courses, was the first person who planted the seed that I could continue to study in this field. On my final paper, she wrote a note introducing the idea that I should consider getting a doctorate degree."
After earning her MSW from Rutgers and working at the Boggs Center, Law soon continued on to get her Ph.D. degree from the University of Georgia School of Social Work where she now serves as an Associate Clinical Professor and Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Pre-Service Education at the Institute on Human Development and Disability/UCEDD at UGAwhere she coordinates a Certificate in Disability Studies program and instructs in multiple courses for students interested in working with people with disabilities
Today, Laws time is used in multiple roles. Not only is she the Training Director for the Institute on Human Development and Disability, she is also the Director of UGA’s first inclusive post-secondary education program for youth with intellectual disabilities and is the Principle Investigator on a five year project of national significance to enhance quality of support offered to people with disabilities in home and community settings. In addition, through teaching, she now finds herself in the position to guide student trainees in the way she was mentored at Rutgers. "I'm really proud of the fact that I've met students who were initially undecided about where they wanted to go, and, through the experience they had in the certificate program, have decided to pursue their MSW degrees, and work in disability advocacy" she says. "They begin to realize that social work as a career offers many different possibilities---you can be involved in policy, in organizational leadership, in program design, and because I have more of a macro social work perspective, it's opened their eyes a bit."
As she continues her pursuit of policy change and working with students, she is realistic about the obstacles confronting people with disabilities. "The biggest challenge they face is low expectation, particularly in employment settings. There is so much we can do to improve on assumptions about disability. We need to focus on strengths, such as the adaptive nature of people with disabilities, who discover new ways to navigate within their environment," she says. "People who have disabilities should not be viewed as objects of pity or charity; as if they are less than you or me. They are the same---and we need to provide them with more opportunities to highlight this fact."