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Published: Tuesday, 5/11/2004

Near-fatal accident altered life, life's work

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sherry Sherry
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It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Twelve years ago, Mark Sherry was an expert on labor history, not disability studies.

He was the author of a controversial book on labor history and a major strike in his native Australia. He spoke there before a senate committee as a whistleblower on corruption.

Then, several weeks after his testimony, Dr. Sherry was run over by a van, leaving him with a brain injury, a broken jaw and cheekbone, a punctured lung, and other serious injuries.

"I was almost killed," he said. "My stomach was actually cut in half and stapled back together."

That incident, for which no one was ever charged, did more than change his personal life, it changed the course of his professional career as well. "My intellectual interest moved from labor history to disability studies," Dr. Sherry, 37, said.

That change in focus now has landed him at the University of Toledo, where he will take over the disability studies program in August. He will be paid $62,000.

The program dates to 2001, when the Ability Center of Great-

er Toledo announced it would donate $1.9 million to UT to establish an endowed professor of disability studies and jump-start a bachelor's degree and minor in the field.

The idea was to consider disabilities in social, economic, and political context rather than in medical terms.

The program is one of a handful in the nation that allows undergraduates to major in it, which they can do at UT through the law and social thought program, said Dr. David Stern, dean of the college of arts and sciences.

And while Dr. Sherry is still early in his academic career by traditional standards - he is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago - officials say he is a leader in a young academic movement.

"His connections in the disability studies arena are almost unsurpassed," Dr. Stern said. "Everybody knows him. His early work has gotten real acclaim."

Tim Harrington, executive director of the Ability Center and a member of the search committee that recommended hiring Dr. Sherry, said the scholar's connections could boost UT's program even more.

"We are very optimistic that with Mark's placement in this program we are going to be able to attract the finest as it relates to disability studies and really attract a lot of attention for the university as well," he said.

With a master's degree in labor history, Dr. Sherry switched after his accident and completed a doctorate in disability studies from the University of Queensland in Australia. He became an activist, starting a group for brain-injury survivors and working to get young disabled people out of nursing homes and into the community.

Dr. Sherry went on to posts at Oregon Health and Science University and at the University of California at Berkeley before making his way to Illinois. At UT, he will be the endowed chair of disability studies and will take over for visiting professor Patricia Murphy who helped build the program.

As someone with a disability, Dr. Sherry said he understands the profound changes that come with it. After the accident, he went through nine years of operations, and he uses a service dog named Wally because of seizures he experiences.

There were social ramifications as well. "Not only was I unemployed, but I also lost an awful lot of friends," he said.

Dr. Sherry said he is particularly impressed with the connection between UT and the Ability Center because it ensures that the work produced is relevant to policies and practices that benefit the community.

"It's the envy of every other disability studies department in the U.S.," he said.

Dr. Sherry said he has great expectations, including hosting seminars and conferences, and perhaps even bringing in the offices of the Society for Disability Studies, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I've always dreamed of building a program like this," he said.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6074.



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