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Learning to shine, hope and laugh

Returning author voices life lessons from services dogs and children at 10th annual Schneider Disability Issues Forum

Photograph+by+Rachel+Helgeson+%2F%2F+Kathy+Nimmer%2C+a+teacher+and+author+with+a+disability%2C+recalls+her+time+meeting+President+Obama+during+her+talk+at+the+10th+Anniversary+of+the+Schneider+Disability+Issues+Forum.
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Learning to shine, hope and laugh

Photograph by Rachel Helgeson // Kathy Nimmer, a teacher and author with a disability, recalls her time meeting President Obama during her talk at the 10th Anniversary of the Schneider Disability Issues Forum.

Photograph by Rachel Helgeson // Kathy Nimmer, a teacher and author with a disability, recalls her time meeting President Obama during her talk at the 10th Anniversary of the Schneider Disability Issues Forum.

Rachel Helgeson

Photograph by Rachel Helgeson // Kathy Nimmer, a teacher and author with a disability, recalls her time meeting President Obama during her talk at the 10th Anniversary of the Schneider Disability Issues Forum.

Rachel Helgeson

Rachel Helgeson

Photograph by Rachel Helgeson // Kathy Nimmer, a teacher and author with a disability, recalls her time meeting President Obama during her talk at the 10th Anniversary of the Schneider Disability Issues Forum.

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A Labrador laying contentedly on the floor next to the speaker behind the podium shakes an itch away, the harness around his torso jingling quietly.

The speaker, Dr. Katherine Schneider, is the reason there is an event with a large audience and the Labrador service dog behind the podium.

Every seat in the audience is filled for the 10th Anniversary Schneider Disability Issues Forum. Even more listeners are standing along the walls of the theater.

“Diamonds are made by the earth exerting great pressure on carbon, as I understand it,” Schneider says, smiling at the audience.

Captioning rolls across the projector screen behind her. A sign language translator at the edge of the podium quickly signs Schneider’s message for the audience with hearing disabilities.

“The authors we’ve had over the (last) ten years experience the pressures of a disability and of dealing with societal attitudes about disabilities. They’ve each expressed their experience uniquely, whether in poetry, prose memoir, young adult fiction.”

Each year, the forum provides the campus and community an opportunity to hear personal stories from authors, recognized speakers, activists and others with disabilities.

This year, Dr. Schneider welcomed back an audience favorite author, Kathy Nimmer, for her second time as speaker at the forum.

Nimmer is the 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for 2015 National Teacher of the Year.

Nimmer takes Dr. Schneider’s position on the podium with her own guide dog at her side and begins her presentation entitled “What Kindergartners and Canines Know: Lessons from a Life with Students and Service Dogs”.

“It is an amazing thing, this life, that we are all given to live, and I today want to tell some stories,” Nimmer announces confidently, her red shirt vibrant at the front of the room and her smile beaming. “Children and dogs teach us how to learn.”

As her speech progresses, the audience listens intently to the way Nimmer expresses her touching stories about teaching with a disability. An author and teacher, she weaves her way through three foundational themes conveyed through experiences with dogs and children: Learning, laughing and loving.

“If I am ever hardened by this world, this adult world, that bangs into us, with such swift and cruel harshness, I need to listen to those kids and discover what they are capable of.” Nimmer’s voice remains consistently intimate with the audience’s ears.

Her emotional and heartfelt stories are about everything from her classroom, to her unique daily tweets and even her time meeting President Barack Obama and Dolly Parton along with her dedicated guide dog.

“If we all would remember to laugh more, I think we would do better at this thing called life. I think we would be better teachers. I think we would be better parents. I think we would be better pet owners. And I think we would be better human beings.”

In her talk, Nimmer also shares the importance of dedication to dogs and dogs’ dedication to their owners with stories from her book Two Plus Four Equals One, which is compiled of stories about people with service dogs and disabilities.

With these stories, Nimmer gives the audience a reason to care about puppy raisers who are responsible in the first year for a dog being raised for service.

For one particular audience member, this recognition for puppy raisers is special.

Eau Claire resident Sarah Tweedale, sitting in the front row at the event, is wiping tears away while listening to Nimmer’s story about puppy raisers. There is a black puppy in a blue fabric training vest laying at her feet.

The puppy, Wilbur, is a soon-to-be service dog. Tweedale said he came from Michigan at eight weeks old.

She said she felt raising the service puppies was something she could do and she went for it.

“It’s not supposed to be about you,” she said about the journey as a puppy raiser. “That’s what makes it more meaningful and special for somebody who receives a dog.”

Sniffles and the crinkling of travel tissue packages are heard in the audience as Nimmer shares one particular memory during her speech.

At a recent speaking event back in her hometown elementary school, where she first learned of her rare retinal disease diagnosis, Nimmer was asked the toughest question by the bravest boy.

“’Does it ever get so difficult that you want to give up?’” Nimmer said the boy had asked through a speech device while sitting in a wheelchair in her old school’s gym.

Nimmer said she found out later the boy had been working on learning how to hold a pencil in his therapy.

Nimmer said at that moment, she knew her answer would mean more than anything she had said to anyone in her whole life: “’It has been difficult,’” Nimmer answered the boy then, “’and not only have I wanted to give up, there have been times I have given up. And I’m so glad that you and the courage to ask me that question.’”

Yet, Dr. Schneider believes Nimmer’s speech encapsulates most of what she pulls inspiration from, including loving interdependent relationships with humans.

Nimmer’s last words of her speech are filled with hope.

“It’s in the imperfection that we can find love wrapped up with grace, forgiveness, patience, and perseverance. The joy that a child and a dog will remind you of matter so much more than anything else.”

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Learning to shine, hope and laugh