May 9 2011
Bridging Research and Practice
"My role in life is to be a link to better opportunities"
Nancy Hinkley has a husband, three daughters, a house, a dog, a little yellow car, a seat on the Bainbridge-Guilford School Board and tremendous energy for what others might call a job.
"It's not my work. It is me, an extension of me. This is the job I've been building for my whole life."
At ILR's Employment and Disability Institute, she translates what researchers there and elsewhere have learned.
Then, she shares that knowledge with teachers and others – across the state and nationally – to help teens with disabilities move into adult life with jobs and brighter futures.
"I help people understand" how to bring research into practice, said Hinkley, who has worked at ILR for six years.
For more than 20 years, she coached students in public schools to "take charge of (your) disabilities and focus on strengths ... nobody gets a job based on what they can't do."
Teens and young adults with disabilities sometimes "forget what they can do," Hinkley said in an interview.
"I discovered I loved helping them work through the system to get them where they needed to go."
For some, "It's like being a foreign exchange student in your own country. You don't know the questions to ask."
She was fond of saying "Let me hear your story and let me connect you" to resources that will get you where you want to go.
Hinkley's passion for empowering students and their teachers is tied to her own teen years.
Back up to the summer she was 15.
She had rollicking fun with the girls who lived near her family's farm in northwestern Pennsylvania.
A girl new to the area joined the group.
"She was so smart, she could fix anything." Hinkley remembers thinking, "... she is smarter than I am."
When tenth grade started that fall, Hinkley looked for her new friend at school. She was stunned to learn the girl was segregated in a special education classroom away from all her summer friends.
"You've made a horrible mistake," Hinkley told school authorities, who ignored her.
That friend "was one of my drivers," Hinkley said, towards a career helping teens with disabilities transition from school into the work world.
Another driver was a guidance counselor.
Hinkley was a high school senior on the verge of dropping out so that she could work full time.
Her father had died that winter pulling a neighbor's car out of a ditch during the Blizzard of 1977. He left behind a wife and three daughters.
When Hinkley, the eldest child, mentioned to her guidance counselor she would be leaving school to support the family, the response was emphatic.
"You can't drop out."
Within 48 hours, a second-shift job at a nursing home was lined up.
During the day, Hinkley went to school and continued participating in marching band.
"I would take my nurse's aide bag to school, attend classes, go to band practice, hand off my band equipment for the bag as we marched past the nursing home and I'd go to work."
The following September, Hinkley became the first in her family to attend college.
Four years later, she graduated and started as a special education teacher in a middle school on the Virginia-North Carolina border.
In August, she begins a doctoral program in educational theory and practice at Binghamton University that will nourish her work.
"My role in life is to be a link to better opportunities for those with disabilities."