For Alumnus, the reception of the campus has brought new perspectives | Today

By John DiConsiglio

John P. Benison, BA ’93, remembers the moment he knew he had found a home at George Washington University.

During her second year as a communications major, her parents visited Foggy Bottom. Benison and his family were particularly close. In high school, as a blind man and gay man who had yet to come out, Benison struggled with his confidence and relied on the unwavering support of his mother and father.

At GW, Benison threw himself into the community. He served with student government, helped establish disability awareness week, joined an LGBTQ advocacy group, and found friends at a fraternity. Even after graduation, he remained involved as a young ex-administrator. A recipient of GW scholarships, Benison also became an alumni scholarship donor.

While escorting his family around campus that afternoon in 1990, Benison was approached by nearly a dozen friends and faculty members, all eager to meet his parents and compliment their son. “Teachers, administrators, classmates, they all wanted to shake hands and say hello,” he recalls. As his mother and father beamed with pride, Benison thought to himself, “This is where I fit in.”

For Benison, coming to GW was a life-changing experience, one he credits with boosting his self-esteem and preparing him for his future roles. Today, he is a top civil rights administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has shaped federal policy and even briefed President Barack Obama. He is a veteran of nine marathons. And he’s a proud, openly gay man and father of an 8-year-old adopted daughter.

“I had a strong support system – my family and at GW – so I never felt like there was anything I couldn’t do,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my mom and dad and my time at GW.”

Benison has been legally blind since birth, the result of a genetic condition called ocular albinism. Growing up in Worcester, Mass., her parents championed her accomplishments. He remembers his father, who died in 2000, reading the newspapers with him on their porch and encouraging his interest in government. “My dad really wanted me to come to Washington, DC,” he said. Indeed, the family visited GW when Benison was 11, where he said “I’m going to go to school here”.

Still, Benison faced obstacles as a teenager. While visiting a small college in New Hampshire, an official told him that, despite his good grades, the school would not admit him. A blind person would not succeed here, the official insisted. And the school didn’t want to be responsible for Benison’s low self-esteem when he failed.

“That’s when the reality set in for me as a young man that I was going to face these challenges throughout my life,” he said.

But at GW, Benison found a welcoming community and plenty of services for the visually impaired. Even before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was passed, Benison had access to supports such as textbook readers and extra time for exams. “It was the first university I visited that had an organized and well-run program for the visually impaired,” he said.

Today, approximately 2% of the more than 3,600 students registered with the university’s Disability Support Services Office are visually impaired. Everyone has access to personalized services that include recorded audio materials, in Braille or electronic format, and classroom scribes for note-taking assistance. Other supports include an assistive technology lab at the Gelman Library and two separate scholarships for blind or visually impaired students.

“Each student comes with a different set of circumstances. Our goal is to have an individualized response for every student who comes through our doors,” said Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice-president of diversity, equity and community engagement. “We want to make sure we fully explore what their needs are and how we can remove barriers to accessing our educational programs and services.”

After graduating from GW, Benison stayed in Washington where he had a distinguished career in government. In his role as FAA Deputy Administrator in the Office of Civil Rights, he is responsible for ensuring the implementation of civil rights, equal opportunity and diversity precepts for more than 47,000 employees and beneficiaries of federal aid. He advises federal agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management and the Departments of Labor and Justice. And in 2015, after transforming the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, he briefed President Obama as part of a White House advisory group.

A nervous Benison had an all-nighter before the briefing and even cut himself while shaving that morning. “But I calmed down and spoke to the president without my voice shaking. It was the coolest thing in the world,” he recalls. Upon returning home from the briefing, Benison immediately called his mother. “You’ll never believe what I just did,” he told her.

Throughout his career in government, Benison was often guided by a phrase used in disability employment settings: Give me the right to be fired. “Don’t determine that because I have a visual impairment that I can’t do something,” he said. “Give me the tools and give me a chance. If I don’t succeed, so be it. But it is unfair to determine that I will fail without giving myself the opportunity to try.

Benison continues to support the university, including attending campus events with her daughter Sadie and encouraging other visually impaired young people to consider finding their own home at GW.

“I want them to have the exact same experience as me,” he said. “I want them to be somewhere welcoming and accessible, where they can thrive and have a good life.”

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