Beloit’s 2018 Commencement speaker Gary Arnold’92 has been holding on to a single regret from his college days for more than 20 years. He didn’t have a show on the popular student-run radio station WBCR.
Of course as a typical Beloiter, Arnold was a bit busy. The creative writing major studied abroad in Kenya during his junior year, was a co-editor of The Round Table, and a member of Students for an Integrated Beloit College Curriculum, a group of students advocating to revamp the Beloit College curriculum to make it more inclusive.
“Whenever I think of Beloit, [I think] it really was a place where you had room to grow and room to explore,” says Arnold. “You had the space to chart your own course or change courses if need be.”
At his 1992 Commencement ceremony, Arnold was awarded the Martha Peterson Prize, and shortly after moved to Chicago. He tried to follow the footsteps of his family members and become a teacher, but realizing it wasn’t a fit, he began working at a messenger service. After a few years, he wanted more.
A Madison native, Arnold embarked on a drive back to Wisconsin, searching for direction in his career. On the way, he stopped by Beloit College. It was May of 1999, just a week after Commencement. By happenstance, that year’s graduation speaker was Marca Bristo’74, who had founded Access Living, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to empowering people living with disabilities to advocate for themselves. His former professors told him that she was looking to hire an executive assistant.
At 4-foot-2, Arnold had always identified as a person living with dwarfism, participated in Little People of America events and gatherings when he was younger, but he had never connected that to disability rights and inclusion. Hearing about Access Living piqued his interest.
During his time at Beloit, Arnold had helped advocate for other minority groups on campus, but there wasn’t a place to advocate for himself.
“I’m clearly different because of my disability, but there was no disability group on campus, and I wasn’t ready to start one,” says Arnold. “I wasn’t that much on the road to identifying as a disabled person.”
For Arnold, Access Living provided an opportunity to network with industry leaders and become more involved with Little People of America, which he had shied away from during his college years.
“At a young age my parents introduced me to Little People of America. Like a lot of people in my situation, who are little people but have parents of average stature, you are involved when you’re young but high school or college you kind of go through this period of ‘I don’t need that.’ But it was that experience at Beloit that made me think, ‘I do need Little People of America.’”
After a year, Arnold moved into the public relations manager role at Access Living, a title he held for 16 years. Simultaneously, he joined the Little People of America board of directors, eventually serving as president for two terms between 2011-2017. In October of 2017, Arnold took on the director of programs role at the Progress Center for Independent Living.
“We’re trying to make systemic change for the world by making the environment where we live more inclusive to people with disabilities,” says Arnold. “I like what I do and I feel really good about what we’re doing.”
While it might be too late for the WBCR show, Arnold will have the opportunity to speak to an audience of Beloiters at the 2018 Commencement Ceremony on May 20.