IN MEMORIAM: Nancy Seyden and Shirley Goldman

Photo: Nancy Seyden
Nancy Seyden used her own history to show that "individuals with severe disabilities who use ventilation can and do live in the community, complete their education and have productive careers."

Nancy Seyden: Changed campus's attitude

When Nancy Seyden came to UC Davis as a freshman in 1967, the campus didn’t know what to do with her.

School officials finally found housing for her in the Cowell Student Health Center where the medical staff could assist her. Assist her, that is, when Seyden, who had dealt with the Guillian-Barré neuromuscular condition since she was 12, was not motoring her wheelchair through campus and living life to the fullest.

By the time Seyden died Jan. 22 from respiratory failure at the age of 63, UC Davis’ attitude about people with disabilities had transformed. According to many, that change came thanks in large part to Nancy Seyden.

Sitting in her bulky wheelchair and sucking on a tube attached to the ever-present ventilator, Seyden articulated this change more than a decade ago to UC Davis medical students:

“As we head into the 21st century, the biggest change is occurring in the way that disabled people view themselves as a result of leadership that has risen from within the disabled community. This shift in attitudes within the disabled community requires a shift in attitudes from the mainstream community.”

Seyden, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in human development from UC Davis, loved working at her jobs on the Davis campus and at the UC Davis Medical Center. After graduating, she started in 1975 as a staff member at the UC Davis Services to Handicapped Students (later renamed the Disability Resource Center).

Professor Emeritus William Fowler, founding chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, got to know Seyden and recruited her in 1993 to be a research associate with the Research and Training Center in Neuromuscular Diseases. At her offices on both the Davis and Sacramento campuses, Seyden supervised student interns, assisted research subjects and helped carry out research in neuromuscular medicine.

“She related to the people who came in, helping to get them interested in participating in our research,” Fowler said. “She also got them to help others as well as themselves. She did a lot of missionary work. Everybody liked her.”

Fowler, also a founding faculty member of the School of Medicine, remembered his early years on campus. “When I first came here in 1968 as head of the department, the campus itself had no provisions for the disabled. People couldn’t get into classrooms or bathrooms; we had no curb cuts. It was a disaster.”

As much as Seyden appreciated the curb cuts that eventually arrived, those physical barriers were not what really bothered her.

In that same lecture she prepared in the 1990s for medical students (and delivered for several years), she wrote:

“I have been living with permanent disabilities for 40 years, and I can tell you from experience that not being able to breathe without a ventilator or walk are not the problems that dishearten me the most. I do have some control over the solutions to those problems.

“The problems that dishearten me the most and emphasize my disabilities are the pervasive social barriers and projected negative attitudes of others toward persons with disabilities like mine.”

Seyden invested her advocacy talents at the county and state levels, working for disability awareness, but, just as importantly, her goal was to influence the UC Davis community.

In the early 1990s, she discovered like-minded disability activists in Buz Dreyer, a computer programmer for Integrated Pest Management; Diane Adams, who was working at the Women’s Resources and Research Center at the time (and recently retired from the Education Abroad Center); and Connie Burton (now Wilbur), formerly of the Disability Resources Center and now directing a disabilities center for MiraCosta College in Oceanside. The quartet founded the Forum on Disabilities Issues.

During the springtime Disabilities Awareness Week, held over the years since the early 1990s, the forum leaders searched for “avant-garde” speakers. These visitors challenged the Sacramento and Davis campuses to be advocates for people with disabilities and to learn how other countries handled disability issues in novel ways — at least novel for Americans.

“We were trying to stretch the idea in people’s mind about what is a disability and what it isn’t and that (people with disabilities) are responsible for that understanding,” Dreyer said.

“Everybody’s got problems — physical, marital, financial. And ramps are used by delivery people, mothers with strollers, people with ambulatory problems and not just for wheelchairs. Nancy was very adamant about that — stretching the definition."

Among her legacies is the library of disability resources within the Women's Resources and Research Center library on the Davis campus.

For many, Seyden was known simply for being her effervescent self.

“What I remember most about Nancy,” wrote Stan Nosek, interim vice chancellor in the Office of Research, who had known Seyden since his early days in Student Housing, “was seeing her on campus traveling from one meeting to another, looking out for people she knew, and always ready to stop and chat.

“Nancy possessed an uplifting spirit that was contagious, and I always left our brief conversations during chance meetings around the campus thinking what a wonderful and complete person she was and feeling fortunate to have her as a colleague and friend.”

After Seyden retired in 2008, she took up knitting and entered her creations in the Yolo County Fair. She volunteered for Yolo Reads and was an education docent for Yolo Basin Foundation, teaching schoolchildren about wildlife and conservation.

More than a decade ago, Seyden made it clear to her students, the future doctors, that having a disability was not a life sentence to being miserable:

“Perhaps now you can look at me and better understand what I’m about to say: Life is good, and I’ve been fortunate. I come from a loving family, and I’ve been blessed with the loving companionship of my soul mate, Peter. …”

Seyden is survived by her husband, Peter Thy, a project scientist in the Department of Geology, and a multitude of friends on the Sacramento and Davis campuses. A celebration of life will be announced later.

Donations in Seyden’s memory may be made to the Yolo Basin Foundation, P.O. Box 943, Davis 95617. The funds will be used to improve accessibility at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.

Read how Seyden used her own disability as a case study in "Wellness in the Context of Disabilities: Enhancing Medical Professionals’ Knowledge of Disability Issues."

— Susanne Rockwell

Shirley A. Goldman: lecturer emerita in mathematics

Shirley A. Goldman, lecturer emerita in mathematics, died Dec. 12 at the age of 80.

Goldman was born in Chicago and earned her master's degree in mathematics from the University of Illinois in 1951. She joined UC Davis in 1959 as a lecturer in mathematics and later became a senior lecturer. In 1980, she became associate dean of the College of Letters and Science and served in that position until her retirement in 1989.

In between traveling — she visited 55 countries — she volunteered in a variety of community voluntary activities, including serving as treasurer on the boards of the Davis Art Center and Pence Gallery, and assisting low- and moderate-income residents with tax preparation. She also was active in the Yolo County Historical Society and Davis Community Meals.

The city of Davis named her citizen of the year in 2009.

She is survived by three daughters, and five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

— Andy Fell

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