Kerry Thompson, Ed.M. ’08, didn’t start a dance program to promote human rights. But after seeing how dance brought people together around a common interest — whether they had disabilities or not — her program gracefully pivoted in that direction.
Thompson, a Louisiana native, expanded her nonprofit, Silent Rhythms, from including people with disabilities in dance to using dance to promote inclusion in society. It’s a paradigm shift, she feels, that will help change how people perceive those with disabilities, who often face discrimination and barriers restricting them from fully participating in society.
“Inclusion is still not a given in the U.S.” said Thompson, “and that’s why rather than accept that to be a fact, our society has to address it, challenge it.”
So Thompson, who earned her master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is deaf and blind, set out to do her part to move society forward.
“I love that [in dance] you can communicate with your partner without having to say a word,” Thompson said. “To me, that’s why dancing is the perfect way to bring the [deaf-blind, deaf, hearing-impaired, and hearing communities] together.”
Step by step, tango by tango, Thompson has taught dance to more than 5,000 individuals with disabilities, alongside those without them. Her effort has helped educate, raise awareness, and promote inclusion among people without disabilities while inspiring and bringing confidence to marginalized communities such as the deaf, who are often overlooked in dance because they can’t hear the music.
“As a teacher, I love when my students start with all these fears and self-doubts, but the more they do it, the more fun they have,” she said. “They are freed of their inhibitions and think, ‘I can do this.’ One student who has been with me for four years told me that he can now walk better. Before he struggled with walking due to balance challenges.”
Thompson understands many of the difficulties her students with disabilities face. Born with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes deafness and gradual vision loss, Thompson was born deaf and at age 10 began contending with progressive blindness. While most people can see 180 degrees, she can now see only 10. “It’s like seeing the world through a tiny hole on a piece of paper over your face,” she said.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, approximately 100,000 people in the U.S. — not even 1 percent of the population — live with Usher syndrome, which accounts for most deaf-blindness. “Most people will never meet a person who is deaf-blind and most can only think of one person in history with deaf-blindness: Helen Keller,” Thompson said.