University of Michigan students, faculty and staff gathered at Rackham Auditorium on Monday afternoon for an event titled the Disability Inclusion Panel: Making U-M Events More Welcoming & Accessible. The event was co-presented by the International Institute’s Inclusion Culture Liaisons Committee and the Disability Culture at U-M Committee and co-sponsored by the Global Scholars Program and the Council for Disability Concerns.

Panelists included Dr. Shanna Kattari, an assistant professor at the School of Social Work and LSA Women’s Studies Department; Elizabeth McLain, a School of Music, Theatre and Dance Ph.D. candidate; Seif Saqallah, a third-year Law student; Solomon Furious Worlds, a second-year Law student and Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Disability Rights Student Organization; Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, Director for Medical Student Success in the Medical School's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Kayla Williams, a School of Information alum.

Ashley Wiseman, associate director of the Global Scholars Program, served as co-organizer of the event with Ashley Bates, the program manager for the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Wiseman also moderated the panel.

The panel started with Bates introducing herself and the event. During her introduction, Bates acknowledged her involvement in the event as an able-bodied person.

“I do not have a disability, and have made many mistakes myself related to disability inclusivity,” Bates said. ”Co-sponsoring this event has been a powerful learning experience for me.”

Wiseman then introduced herself and explained that the goal of the panel was to have a candid, open discussion about disabilities. 

“Today, we will acknowledge and normalize experiences with disability in this space,” Wiseman said. “We recognize not all disability experiences will be represented, nor was this intended to be a comprehensive course on accommodations and accessibility. But we hope this will be one of many conversations.”

The panelists then discussed their thoughts about language used during conversations about disabilities, regarding person-first language versus identity-first language and the phrases “person with disability” versus “disabled person.” Person-first language identifies people by their disability second, while identity-first characterizes someone by their disability first. For example, the phrase “person with a disability” uses person-first language while “disabled person” uses identity-first language.

Saqallah explained that while he uses disability-first language when introducing himself, he uses person-first language when describing others and asks them which they prefer. He also recognized that people interpret the word “disability” both negatively and positively, and the distinction is important when deciding what kind of language to use.

“It’s one of the words that we unfortunately have to use, if at all, because it’s commonly known and understood,” Saqallah said. “But my best approach (for others) is to ask. My best approach for myself is to be direct.”

Kattari similarly said she prefers identity-first language when describing herself. She explained this is because her disability is largely impacted by societal structures.

“It is our society that disables us,” Kattari said. “If I simply was chronically ill or had mobility issues and we lived in a world where everything was ramped and I could have flexible work hours to deal with my chronic fatigue … I wouldn’t need accomodations and I wouldn’t need to consider myself disabled. It’s the way our society operates.”

Kattari said her use of identity-first language also stems from her pride of all facets of her identity.

“Just like being fat or being queer are wonderful and fine things that just describe who I am, so does my disabled identity,” Kattari said. “So I very strongly identify as a disabled woman, not a woman with a disability.”

Okanlami shared an anecdote about a conversation he had with his friend to illustrate the need to both recognize a person’s disability and see past it.

“He wanted to know, ‘how do I refer to you?’ And I said ‘Feranmi,’” Okanlami said. “Because that’s my name. I like to talk about intersectionality a lot, because I am not one thing … I think that we definitely judge or we characterize someone based on what they cannot do instead of what they demonstrate what they can.”

The panelists then discussed how their disabilities intersect with other parts of their identities. As a Black woman with an invisible disability, Williams said she often does not reveal that she wears a cochlear implant because people already make assumptions about her based on her appearance.

“Sometimes, just because of my race alone, I do face discrimination, or prejudice, or whatever it may be,” Williams said. “So I will be treated differently, right off the bat, in most cases. And that is different, being a Black woman, as well. So there are cases where I don’t want to reveal that I’m deaf, because I’m already being judged in a space that I am.”

Kattari juxtaposed Williams’ position with her own, saying that due to her privilege as a white woman, she acts in the opposite way.

“As a white cisgender person who’s a faculty member, I hold a lot of privilege, so I try to be very out all the time about my disability even when I don’t need to be,” Kattari said. “It normalizes things in a way and helps people think … about everything from events to how our faculty meetings are set up, to how people want to stop me as a colleague and stand in a hallway and I have to go get a chair to sit down in it.”  

McLain discussed how her gender has affected her ability to receive medical assistance.

“As someone who has an autoimmune disease and genetic condition that disproportionately affect women, these conditions often take a decade or more to diagnose, and there’s a lot of research that suggests that it takes an additional ten years or more if you are female, because there are a lot of biases against women,” McLain said. “I don’t know how many people tried to tell me I was just depressed.”

McLain said she woke up one day from a nap and was unable to walk. When she visited a doctor, he did not issue any tests or attempt to diagnose her and instead told her to come back in three months. After months of her condition deteriorating, she came back with a cane and the doctor directed her to buy a book called “Unlearn Your Pain.”

The panelists also talked about how personal interactions with people with disabilities should take place. Williams highlighted the importance of offering help.

“If you are talking to someone, and they choose to share they have a disability, I would say ask them can you be helpful, as opposed to assuming that you know about their disability,” Williams said. “So always ask questions, if they are comfortable with it … if they say ‘no thank you’ or ‘no,’ do not be offended. It’s their personal choice if they choose to share or not.”

Saqallah added to Williams’ point by noting that making mistakes when interacting with people with disabilities is not only inevitable but can also act as points for growth.

“Acknowledge your shortcomings, and then learn from them,” Saqallah said. “That is the best way to learn, and if you are able, if you can, advocate for yourself … if they see you advocate yourself, if they see that you are up and you can do it, it’s a much easier process.”

The panel then turned the focus to the University’s accommodations and support for people with disabilities. 

Okanlami discussed the University’s shortcomings within its athletic department. He criticized the University’s lack of an adaptive sports team despite the two images of a man in a sports wheelchair displayed in the University Hospital.

“We do not have an adaptive sports program,” Okanlami said. “We barely have accessible facilities for recreational intramural athletes to be able to go to the gym to get physical fitness and exercise like their peers. So then when pictures around the institution, with the young man in the Michigan shirt, as if we actually have that, that’s disingenuous.”

McLain added to Okanlami’s point about displaying people with disabilities in public spaces, such as websites, and how such actions may be well-intentioned sometimes lead to adverse results.

“There’s something that we call inspiration porn which is the notion that disabled people and our stories are taken and put in this context where we’re just there to inspire able-bodied people,” McLain said. “‘Oh, if that person can do something with no legs, then I should be able to do it.’ And it’s very uncomfortable to objectify us this way.”

Worlds expressed his agreement with the other panelists. He drew from his experiences as a member of several different support and organizational groups to stress the importance of having the input of people with disabilities.

“It is so frustrating to not be included at the table,” Worlds said. “People who I work very closely with, who I am friends with, who are part of the movement, but are so exclusionary. That is, to me, probably the largest challenge that I face in my work because you want them to know, you expect them to know as well, and then they don’t.”

The panelists also spoke about the University’s policies and accommodations for people with disabilities, such as the “Accommodations for Students with Disabilities” statement in its class syllabi and event accommodations, which some panelists believed needed to be more welcoming and explicitly state students’ rights to confidentiality.

McLain noted that some auditoriums have an inaccessible stage. Kattari added event marketing often does not provide information, such as details about parking and food, that some people with disabilities need to know in order to gauge whether they can attend.

She also criticized the University’s policy of only covering the cost of services such as Communication Access Realtime Translation, a service that provides real-time transcriptions, if a student registered with a disability attends the event.

“I’m calling out everybody right now to argue for this,” Kattari said. “The University of Michigan needs to get behind its DEI claim and say disability is part of this and all events should have access to all accommodations needed and the school, the University, will cover the cost.”

The panel ended with a question and answer session with the audience.

Simone Prince-Eichner, a recent graduate of the University’s Law School, told The Daily listening to the panelists made her reflect on her time as a graduate student instructor.

“I was thinking about my syllabi as a GSI, and how they could have been improved, listening to people’s comments about syllabi language,” Prince-Eichner said. “I could have adapted it to be something that was more welcoming, more inclusive. I feel like I learned a lot and I kind of wish I could go back and tweak some things.”

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