Growing up on the southwest side of Indianapolis, Dustin Gilmer, ’15, thought he knew his city.
But not like he knows it now.
As a project assistant for the city’s Office of Disability Affairs, Gilmer can point to an intersection on a map of downtown and tell you how his office helped get a curb cut installed there.
Every day, Gilmer takes phone calls from people with disabilities asking for help to make Indianapolis more accessible. It’s the mission of Gilmer’s office to assist various departments of government, from Metropolitan Development to Business and Neighborhood Services, in complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“It’s our job to ensure people contacting us see their issues taken care of,” Gilmer says. “On any given day, the work is different. One day it’s helping someone in a wheelchair receive a meter-exemption card because they can’t reach a meter box. Another it’s making sure an accessibility ramp gets added to a sidewalk being repaved.”
Gilmer didn’t set out to work in government — he completed dual degrees in telecommunications and journalism — but he likes how his current role allows him to serve people facing challenges intimately familiar to him.
“I never saw myself as much of an advocate. There are enough people out there doing those jobs, so I always thought, ‘Why does the world need one more?’ But when this job came along, I saw how being a person with a disability meant I could better understand the struggles of the people I talk to. It makes me feel proud to know I’m making a difference in my city.”
‘Here’s what can happen’
Seeing Gilmer in a satisfying career makes his mentor, alumnus Greg Fehribach, ’81 MA ’83, feel good, too. Both men have forms of osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as OI or brittle bone disease. They met during Gilmer’s freshman year at Ball State.
“Dustin’s a gregarious guy,” said Fehribach. “I think he’s well placed working for the city.”
A former Ball State trustee who’s practiced law for 30-plus years, Fehribach legally represents the city of Indianapolis. With his guidance, then Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson created the Office of Disability Affairs in 2000. Housed under the Department of Public Works, the office played a key role in Indianapolis’ 2009 recognition by the National Organization on Disability as the model of a disability-friendly city. About a quarter of the city’s 850,000-plus residents have disabilities, according to census data.
On occasion, Fehribach and Gilmer work together in their respective jobs. Fehribach said he’s proud to hear how much his relationship with Gilmer means to the younger alumnus.
“Teaching and mentoring Ball State students is as important to me as it is to them. For those of us with disabilities, we don’t always have a lot of professional role models.” With a laugh, Fehribach adds, “Especially ones with gray hair, which I have plenty of now.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the percentage of working-age people with disabilities in the labor force is about one-third that of persons without disabilities.
Getting up every day and going into the office, Gilmer said he’s like everybody else with an 8-to-5 job. So he chafes at the idea that prevailing over challenges posed by his disability somehow makes him inspirational.
“I hate the word ‘inspiration,’ but I understand that when we highlight successful people with disabilities doing meaningful work, it’s a way to show other people and businesses, ‘Here’s what can happen if you hire somebody with a disability.’ It’s a good thing.”
Fehribach said employed people with disabilities are breaking stereotypes, whether they want to or not.
“Some people in the office may think it’s an honor to say to someone with a disability, ‘You’d never know he’s disabled.’ But that’s like saying you’d never know someone was African-American, or Latino, or LGBT. Stereotypes perpetrated by society are difficult to break, no matter the minority group.”
‘Engaged in his job’
Wherever his nascent career takes Gilmer, Fehribach looks forward to keeping in touch.
“I haven’t a clue what Dustin will be doing in five years, and maybe he doesn’t either, but because he’s a Ball State graduate, I know he’ll figure it out. I look for him to be a change agent wherever he lands.”
One of Gilmer’s supervisors, Tim Joyce, ’80, said the 27-year-old’s future is bright with Indianapolis’ Office of Disability Affairs. “Dustin has all the skills we look for in our employees: He’s bright, has a wonderful personality and is a great listener,” said Joyce, the city’s deputy director for policy and planning. “He’s very engaged in his job and wants to make Indianapolis a better place to live.”
In his time away from work, Gilmer has found another way to make an impact in his community, and that’s through sports.
He enjoys recreational power soccer, which is played in a gymnasium with four players to a team instead of the 11 allotted for an able-bodied soccer team. To move the ball up and down the court, players use foot guards affixed to the front of their power wheelchairs. “It’s as competitive as any sport,” said Gilmer, who recently joined an Indianapolis league. “I love it.”
The sport also brings back memories of his college years, during which he was president of Ball State’s power soccer team, which was the first of its kind in the country.
“When several of the key players graduated, Dustin took over and worked hard to keep the team alive,” said Larry Markle, the university’s director of disability services.
Markle remembers Gilmer’s “infectious” personality. “Other students, with or without disabilities, gravitated toward him.”
Gilmer wants to help Markle revive Ball State’s power soccer team, which ceased competing not long after Gilmer graduated in 2015. “I think it’s important for students with disabilities to see themselves as student-athletes … at least it was for me.”
And he hasn’t given up his goal of someday working in TV news. “I haven’t gotten over that hump just yet … but right now, I do enjoy what I’m doing. It makes me happy, and I’m grateful I’m not sitting at home.”