Oct. 4 marked the beginning of a month-long anti-ableism event entitled Toward an Anti-Ableist Academy. The event kickoff — sponsored primarily by the University of Michigan’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion — featured four speakers who discussed their experiences with ableism and thoughts on how to increase accessibility.
To increase the event’s accessibility, each of the four speakers began with a physical description of themselves, including their gender identity, race, clothing and other key features. The conference provided American Sign Language interpretation for its duration.
Ashley Wiseman is the associate director of the Global Scholars Program, co-chair of the Disability Culture at the University and council member for the Disability Concerns Advisory Group. In coordination with Individuals with Disabilities Education Act student board members, Weisman helped produce 50 recommendations to increase accessibility in University processes and won the Distinguished Diversity of Leadership Team Award in 2019.
Wiseman spoke about disability culture and discrimination at the University and said that, in her work, hybrid meetings are the “default” instead of by request, something she thinks should be more broadly the case.
“This became a so-called new way of doing things, but disabled people had been doing this, or requesting it with varying levels of resistance, for years,” Wiseman said.
Medical student Sam Grewe then spoke about his experience as a person with a disability in the medical community and competing in the high jump at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games, noting that he had a positive experience being somewhere more accessible.
“When you live in the Paralympic Village, you don’t forget about your disability, but you don’t find yourself planning your whole day around it,” Grewe said. “You aren’t restricted by the constraints that others put on you, and you’ll never feel like an outsider amongst your community members.”
Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, an assistant professor at the Medical School and director of Services for Students with Disabilities, began his work with accessibility when, during his third year of residency, he incurred a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the chest down.
“At that time I thought that the only way I was going to be able to continue to contribute was if I recovered,” Okanlami said. “So I poured my heart, my soul, my time, my energy and all the resources into that recovery. I did get to a point where I was able to walk unassisted … It was not really useful, (but) showed that I am no longer bound by this wheelchair.”
Okanlami began his address likening ableism to racism and said both impact how people move through the world on a daily basis.
“Racism is an institution, it is systemic, it is structural and it then impacts the world in which we live, and the things that happen every single day,” Okanlami said. “Ableism is exactly the same thing … the world in which we live was not built for disabled body-minds. It did not take disabled body-minds into account when they created the structures upon which everything has been created.”
In explaining how disabilities affect the campus community, Okanlami gave examples of a blind student who needs access to different kinds of physics course materials or a deaf staff member who is responsible for note-taking.
Okanlami said he hopes the focus for those with disabilities can move to equity and inclusion rather than simply accommodation. He called on the University to anticipate the needs of those with disabilities and for the audience to educate themselves on the topic.
“The past may not be your fault, but the future will be,” Okanlami said. “Each of us has an opportunity within our spheres of influence to do something to make somebody tomorrow better than they were yesterday.”
Daily News Contributor Kylie Claxton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.