Imagine walking home from the tennis courts on Palmer Field at 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s hot, you’re sweaty and you want nothing more than to take a cool shower and hop on Facebook. You know that you’ll have eight new notifications and two new messages waiting in your inbox. So you eagerly rush pass the CCRB only to find an ugly, neon sign with the words “Construction Ahead” written on it. You’re so irritated by the fact that you can’t take your normal shortcut home that you mutter expletives under your breath, all the while walking alongside the Dental School’s perimeter. By the time you crawl through the door of your air-conditioned apartment and out of the god-awful heat, the only thing you can think about is how much you hate construction sites.

Now that you’re just about as agitated as I was last week when I found myself in this very situation, I want you to imagine the same scenario, but with one slight twist: You’re physically disabled.

Needless to say, your whole outlook on the matter changes. The things that annoyed you before just don’t seem to be all that important. After all, you probably wouldn’t be too worried about updating your Facebook status because you’d most likely be too busy worrying about the path in front of you. You probably wouldn’t be nearly as bothered by the heat if the alternate route home was unnecessarily long and hard to navigate. After doing this little experiment in your head, it should become clear to you that even though construction sites might be the bane of your existence, those rather small inconveniences become full-on obstacles for the many men and women living with disabilities here in Ann Arbor.

And it doesn’t stop there. A lot of people fail to appreciate the fact that being disabled is not just a physical or emotional state, but an identity in and of itself.

Like most people these days, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what it was like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes even before coming to University. All throughout middle school and high school, I had a diverse group of friends that included people of varying sexual orientations, genders, faiths and racial backgrounds. Growing up in a rather diverse part of New York City, I began reaching out to people with different life experiences than me at a very young age. I thought I knew everything there was to know about social identities. So when I arrived at the University, I didn’t think I had much more to learn about appreciating diversity. But then one day after class first semester, someone asked me if I had ever heard the term “differently abled.” I froze.

It’s not like I had never met someone with a disability before. But I had only seen the disability as some external condition that only affected a person’s speech, vision, mobility or some other physical ability. I hadn’t realized that being disabled was just as much a social identity as being black or being gay, because being disabled comes with its own set of unique experiences and insights. This isn’t to say that a person is defined by his or her disability any more than it is to say that a person is defined by his or her ethnicity. It’s to say that a person’s disability might play an important role in shaping his or her view of the world.

People at this school are exposed to diversity in all forms. Some of us choose to take this at face value, while others delve into this great opportunity face first. There are tons of people out there who are just like I was, thinking they know everything about social acceptance and tolerance. But the fact of the matter is that there is always more to learn. We have an obligation as members of society to ensure that no people are forgotten, left behind or misunderstood. So, if you’re ever caught off guard like I was about a particular identity, use that moment as your starting point to broaden your own horizons — even if it means walking through a construction site and doing a little thought experiment of your own.

Noel Gordon can be reached at noelaug@umich.edu.

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