From the Daily: Don't ignore disability

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 5:53pm

As the University of Michigan continually implements initiatives to create a more diverse, inclusive and equitable environment, one minority in particular has been neglected in the University’s discussions: students with disabilities. Given 19 percent of people in the United States identified as disabled in the 2010 census, it seems exceptionally remiss for the University to neglect the needs of such a large portion of our population. These issues are incredibly salient now, as the University is moving forward with $85 million renovations to the Michigan Union, which include re-outfitting the building, which originally opened in 1919, to be more accessible for students with disabilities. While the University was ranked the most “disability friendly” campus in the United States in 2016, there is still a long way to go in confronting the ableist culture that pervades everyday aspects of life on campus. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board implores the University to heed the voices of students with disabilities in order to ensure that all students, regardless of their ability status, feel included on campus.

While the University is spending significant time and energy in the interests of diversity, equity and inclusion, the inclusion of those with disabilities has been ignored by almost all University plans outside of Union renovations. The University-wide plan uses vague language to refer to the need for inclusive design with only a single specific University-wide initiative to evaluate University web tools as screen-reader capable. While these initiatives are certainly laudable, we would have expected more thought to have gone into this significant issue across the University.

In general, the overarching DEI plan includes little concerning the inclusivity of people with disabilities. While the University-wide plan includes headshots of many diverse members of our community, the plan lacks a photo of a visibly disabled person on its front page, excluding those who identify as disabled from the get-go. It sometimes even uses language considered derogatory by people in the disabilities community; the one quote from a visibly physically disabled woman in the entire plan includes the term “handicap,” which many in the disabled community consider extremely derogatory.

Moreover, LSA and the Division of Student Life, two of the largest units that deal directly with students, lack concrete efforts in their DEI plans to appeal to students with disabilities. While this board has previously identified significant issues with the DEI initiatives, co-opting the disabled experience in these plans while weakly dealing with the problems is unacceptable.

These oversights manifest in the infrastructure of our campus, as students with physical disabilities have identified seemingly simple issues that have just been ignored by the University. Perhaps the largest issue is that buildings that comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations do not ensure that people with disabilities feel included in those spaces. While ADA-compliant buildings may include accessible pieces of infrastructure such as ramps or wide hallways, these implementations often segregate students with physical disabilities, who consequently must use alternate back or side entrances and roundabout routes to get to their destinations.

Beyond entrances, many lecture halls have accessible seating only in the back, making it difficult for students to see, hear or participate, especially in a large room. Some of these design oversights even endanger students with disabilities. For example, a significant number of West Quad’s “accessible” rooms are located on the fifth floor, creating potentially life-threatening danger for students with physical disabilities in the event of a fire or other emergency restricting use of the elevator. These design flaws send the message that students with physical disabilities are not wanted — or even safe — in our main spaces.

In order to craft more inclusive building and service plans, it is crucial the University consults with several students with disabilities, as each student has different experiences and personalized needs and can provide a nuanced understanding of what it means to be a student with a disability on campus. For many able-bodied individuals, it is impossible to truly understand and think about all the obstacles a disabled individual might encounter on a daily basis. As a result, non-disabled administrators are unable to devise effective policies or solutions without taking the time to listen to students with disabilities. This inexperience can lead non-disabled administrators to make assumptions on behalf of disabled individuals, and these administrators are usually uninformed and openly work against fully including disabled students when crafting policies that have everything to do with them.

As of May 2016, the University serves the most students with disabilities in all of the Big Ten. According to the SSD's 2015-2016 annual report, 2,277 students — including undergraduate, graduate and professional students — are registered with the office. Despite the numbers, the University has a disappointing number of specialist faculty members to help disabled students access equal opportunities on campus. The Services for Students with Disabilities office provides a variety of assistance options for students with learning, mental and physical disabilities. Over the past six years there has been a surge in SSD student enrollment, but since 2013 the SSD budget has been cut by 10-12 percent. There must be an increase in funding to SSD to ensure all students with disabilities can get individual help for their specific needs. An increase in funding would also allow the SSD to reach its full outreach potential, as many students are not aware of the services that SSD can provide.

Finally, the University needs to tackle disability culture as a whole, ensuring all students feel safe and welcome on campus. While this task is a tall order, as it likely involves restructuring curriculum and course requirements, it is a desperately needed step in protecting all students. There are currently many issues surrounding ableist culture that go unnoticed on campus. Those who are able-bodied are often not required to think in a way that includes perspectives of those with disabilities. Few classes are taught with units on disabilities and even fewer classes dive into the heart of curriculum on disabilities and disability history.

For example, while it may seem important to have a class dedicated to the implementation of accessible buildings for students studying architecture or civil engineering, such classes are only offered as electives to architecture students. Furthermore, while it may seem that those in LSA would greatly benefit from classes on disabilities, it is not a requirement that this information be taught and it is only discussed in a few classes, often through the Race and Ethnicity requirement. A few student groups, like Initiative for Inclusive Design, are working toward shedding light on issues of ableism on campus. But with ableism being such a problematic cultural norm, the University has a duty to educate its students on the struggles this marginalized population continues to face, especially when we as a campus have a goal to enhance our diversity, equity and inclusion.

Such a culture shift will likely take a long time to implement and take effect on campus, but this effort needs to start now. There is no excuse for largely ignoring an entire group of people on campus and throughout the world, and denying their voices and stories from being heard. The University should spearhead a culture shift against ableism by recognizing disability as an identity essential to diversity, working with students with disabilities to rectify those issues and educating others on the history and current culture on disabilities. Most important to this culture shift will be continuing the conversation and openly discussing where we as a campus fall short and can improve. The DEI initiative has committed the University to supporting minority groups on campus. Furthermore, the University has displayed a commitment to protecting the rights of minority groups through actions such as the defense against racist fliers found around campus and President Donald Trump’s unacceptable executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Thus, it is imperative that the University also works to defend the rights of students with disabilities on campus.

Correction: This article has been updated. When published Feb. 8, 2017, it incorrectly stated that the SSD budget had been cut in half, but since 2013, the SSD budget has been cut by 10-12 percent. The link to the SSD 2015-2016 budget was also changed to reflect this updated information. The illustration was also removed due to the inaccuracy of the budget statistic.