Unbeknownst to her, Director of the Disability Resource Center Mary Zabel’s colleagues across the Nevada System of Higher Education had something special planned for the 2021 Nevada AHEAD Conference. The Association on Higher Education and Disability “is the leading professional membership association for individuals committed to equity for persons with disabilities in higher education.” The Nevada chapter’s 2021 conference schedule included keynote speaker Randall Owen from the University of Nevada, Reno’s Nevada Center for Excellence in Disabilities, David Parker of the Children’s Resource Group and Dr. Danielle Moreggi of the Psychology Institute of Las Vegas. Listed in the schedule only as a special announcement was the inaugural Nevada AHEAD Lifetime Achievement Award and its unwitting surprise recipient, Mary Zabel.
Zabel started at the University in her role as director of the Disability Resource Center in 1996. She was, at this point, 13 years into her career, which began at the Disability Resource Center at Cypress College, a community college in California. Zabel worked as a learning disabilities specialist there for three years until earning the director role, which she held until 1995. Before making her way to the University of Nevada, Reno, Zabel founded the Disability Resource Center at Western Nevada College, serving as director from 1995 to 1996.
“Her passion for supporting students and ensuring they are all provided an equitable, accessible and inclusive education is her life’s work.”
She has also contributed to and/or held leadership positions in the Association of Higher Education and Disability, the Association of Educational Therapists and the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Her close involvement with Nevada AHEAD, including being a recent past president, was the reason the Lifetime Achievement Award didn’t make the conference schedule. Zabel’s colleagues wanted to surprise her, and they most certainly did.
“It is an absolute honor to receive this award from my NSHE colleagues, for whom I hold the utmost respect,” Zabel said. “I know I would not have received this recognition were it not for my amazing DRC team/family. I want to thank them for their dedication and service.”
Zabel’s team/family at the Disability Resource Center think she’s pretty amazing herself.
“I’ve been working with Mary for 20 years,” Assistant Director of the Disability Resource Center Mary Anne Christensen said. “Every staff member, including me, has been allowed to explore ideas, explore new possibilities and programs. We never would have had the peer mentor program if it weren’t for Mary. We never would have collaborated with other campus departments the way we do now without her vision. In the time she’s been here, I think she’s really changed campus for the better to make it a more accessible place.”
Christensen, who started work with Zabel first as a freelance interpreter and then as a graduate student intern, explained that a lot of programs now present throughout NSHE exist because Zabel started them here at the University. “We have a reduced course load policy because of Mary,” she said. “We have a foreign language course substitution. We have a one-credit math equivalency course for core math.”
Beyond all of the professional associations and the impressive career, it’s clear that Zabel’s true passion is working directly with students. This is widely regarded as Zabel’s greatest strength, as well, something she passes on to every member of her team.
“In the 6 years that I have been fortunate to work under Mary, she has without hesitation shared her profound knowledge, insight and understanding of how the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to higher education,” Assistant Director of the Disability Resource Center Shane Carter said. “Her passion for supporting students and ensuring they are all provided an equitable, accessible and inclusive education is her life’s work; it is present in all of the individualized attention she provides our students and the decisions that are made to keep our Institution in compliance.”
Fortunately for the University, Zabel’s award-winning career is still in full swing. She continues to dedicate herself to the cause. “Mary embodies the holistic ideals of diversity and inclusion that we all strive to obtain as contributing members of a civically engaged and progressive society,” said Carter. “Our DRC staff are blessed to have such an amazing mentor and person guiding our campus culture and community.”
Photos taken before pandemic and current mandates.