Dr. Royal Walker serves as the executive director of the Institute for Disability Studies at The University of Southern Mississippi. Recently, Walker took a few moments to reflect on his current responsibilities and outside interests in a question-and-answer format.
Q: What is your hometown and educational background?
A: I grew up in Drew, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. I graduated from Jackson State University with a major in political science, studied at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, then graduated from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, returning to work in Mississippi.
Q: How long have you worked at Southern Miss?
A: I was recruited to the Institute from state government by President Aubrey Lucas and Dr. Jane Siders. I have been at IDS for almost 20 years.
Q: How did you become the IDS executive director?
A: At IDS, I first served as associate director, then co-director beginning in 2006. I have been executive director since 2008.
Q: What is the most gratifying aspect of your position?
A: Every day, I have the pleasure of seeing that people with disabilities are resilient, creative and have much to contribute to all aspects of our society. In addition, I have found they do not want to be treated any differently than any other citizen. They, too, want respect, dignity and the fulfillment of their dreams for their families and communities.
Q: Why is helping people with disabilities so important to you and the Institute?
A: With Mississippi being a state with one of the highest percentages per population of people with disabilities in the nation, there are many public policy issues that need to be addressed. Education, including early childhood education and housing are clearly two issues. Then, there’s health care, employment and transportation. Much work has been done for the general population by policy makers in these areas but there has been a lack of focus on the unique impact of these policy areas on people with disabilities.
Q: Do you have any family members with a disability?
A: When I began this job, I did not have a family member with a disability. As director of the Division of Budget and Policy of the Department of Finance and Administration under Gov. Ray Mabus, I was asked by a group of self advocates and parents of children with disabilities to arrange a meeting with the governor to discuss the lack of community services for people with disabilities. As each person told their family’s story – of considering a move out of state to receive community services, institutionalizing their children or the destruction of their families – I remembered by Delta childhood experiences. I was a new parent and realized I could be facing the same issues. Frankly, all of us could be one accident away from being a person with a disability. I left that meeting committed to the fight for inclusion, community services and, more importantly, justice for all.
Q: What’s the best advice you ever received and from whom?
A: My grandmother always said the best solution any problem is not black and white; it is really about right and wrong. You should always choose a solution that is morally and ethically right. Whether you are black or white, I feel as she did that everyone wants the same thing for their families – a good education, the opportunity for employment and basically a good quality of life.
Q: When you are not at work, how do you like to spend your free time?
A: Family and church and important parts of my life. My wife and I have two daughters in college, and I am a deacon of my church. I am often involved in community activities.
Q: What’s the best part about working at Southern Miss?
A: Southern Miss provides a great opportunity for creativity and leadership. In addition, Southern Miss has allowed us through the Institute to express its deep and extensive commitment to community service statewide.