Leadership Perspective: Disabusing Disability and Advancing Our Community

Oluwaferanmi O. Okanlami, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine, physical medicine & rehabilitation, and urology, and U-M’s Director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services. Dr. Okanlami aims to make his work and his life a demonstration that disability is not inability. He focuses his work on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion broadly, now as an individual living at the intersection of disability and race. He discusses how disability is just one aspect of diversity, but one that is often missed in many diversity initiatives. He speaks around the country on topics related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, including, but not limited to the lack of black male physicians and creating a health system that is accessible and inclusive to both patients and providers with disabilities. He is also leading efforts to grow the adaptive sports program, providing access to physical fitness, recreational, and competitive sports for all.

We spoke with Dr. Okanlami about his efforts, experiences, and advice for the community to be more inclusive and intentional about accessibility and inclusion. He wants to make sure that all readers know that he consulted with partners across campus who are responsible for much of the progress that we are seeing. “I consider myself just one fortunate member of a growing team of partners working tirelessly to improve the culture and climate around disability on campus,” he said.

As the Director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services, can you share some of the ways that University of Michigan is advancing efforts to create a more welcoming university community that actively works toward embracing disability culture?

Image of Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami wearing a suit and posing for a headshot-style photo with a blurred background.

Disability is often left out of conversations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. However it has become clear that the University of Michigan is beginning to recognize that disability culture is alive and well on this campus. Thanks to the efforts of many students, faculty, staff, and community members, the needs of the disability community are being heard and understood in ways that weren’t always appreciated in the past. Some of the low hanging fruit that one may be able to notice already is the presence of captions and ASL interpretation during events, while a larger investment in the built environment is the financial support that was provided to add 50 more automatic door openers to external doors on buildings all across campus. While it may often feel like improvements are not being implemented as quickly as some may have hoped, there has clearly been a realization that we, as an institution, have a long way to go to make our campus community more accessible, which is only one step towards truly embracing the diversity of disability culture. We are currently in discussions about providing a space for disabled students and student groups in the union, either for individuals to go on their own or for groups to gather together. Often the work of an office like ours is merely seen as needed in order to be in compliance with the law, but in conjunction with our partners across the entire campus, we are doing everything we can to go “beyond compliance” in order to truly make our campus the welcoming university community that we all know it could be. 

Over the past 2 years, the University has significantly invested in student disability services. In addition to purchasing Accommodate, an electronic data management system to streamline the accommodations process while protecting student information, we have also been able to drastically increase the number of staff available to support our students, have assumed responsibility for two testing accommodations centers, and added the adaptive sports and fitness program. 

How can the community learn about developing a welcoming campus environment and helping to ensure that the disabled community can fully participate in the University of Michigan experience?

I know I speak for all of our partners across campus when I say that we see the need to provide reasonable accommodations for students, faculty, staff, and quite frankly anyone who visits this campus, as the bare minimum that must be provided. Our goal is to go well beyond that, to ensure that the disability community can not only fully participate, but can thrive and have equitable access to the extraordinary University of Michigan experience that others get. One example of this work can be found in  LSA. To create a more welcoming environment for faculty, staff, and graduate student workers with disabilities, U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and Arts (LSA) launched a three-year pilot project this past January with the creation of the LSA Faculty and Staff Disability Navigator roles at the center. The Navigators recently announced a streamlined process and centralized funding for employee accommodations, aiming to deliver the support LSA employees need to do their best work. In addition, they introduced funding to proactively provide access services like ASL interpretation and real-time captioning at LSA’s larger and public-facing events, along with consultation services to help employees plan events with accessibility in mind. In the coming months, they are spearheading strategies to improve the accessibility of the College’s digital assets, buildings, and emergency plans. The Navigators are sharing their service model as it evolves, to encourage its adoption by other schools and colleges at U-M and beyond. Those interested can learn more about the pilot program on the LSA Disability Navigator webpage. I would also like to highlight the important work that has been done by Rackham, following the needs assessment they performed. 

The U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness (ASF) program works to lead the state of Michigan and beyond in adaptive sports and fitness by fully embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion while also increasing awareness, knowledge, access, and participation in sports and fitness among people with and without disabilities. In what ways has the program elevated the importance of this mission and advocated to support more equitable opportunities?

The COVID-19 pandemic helped to shed light on many inequities that existed long before the pandemic began, and the lack of sufficient access to physical health and wellness options for the disability community was one of them. ASF was very fortunate to find a home within the Division of Student Life early on in the pandemic and that has given us the opportunity to achieve our goal in various ways. We have begun to attract student-athletes with disabilities from all over the country (and world) who currently compete in three different sports – wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis, and para track and field. We have embedded adaptive sports into the physical education curriculum of Ann Arbor Public schools such that every 6th grade student in AAPS will have the opportunity to learn about and participate in adaptive sports during their PE classes; and we have partnered with the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living to renovate and expand their inclusive fitness center. While adaptive sports provide an opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in sports and fitness, our goal is to demonstrate that adaptive sports are in fact just accessible and inclusive sports which allow everyone to participate together. In 2022 alone we hosted two wheelchair basketball tournaments, one wheelchair tennis tournament, several adaptive sports clinics, and have had multiple team and individual performances at national and international competitions. 

Image of Dr. Okanlami and others in wheelchairs fist-bumping on a basketball wearing maize and blue "U-M Adaptive Sports & Fitness" shirts.
Dr. O fist bumps Spencer Heslop, a student in U-M’s School of Public Health, while Edward Elinburg looks on. Photo from the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan.

What does “Disabusing Disability” mean and how did you originate (and trademark) this phrase?

Disabusing Disability was a catchphrase I first started using as I was hoping to change people’s minds about what “disability” actually is and what the word means. As a physician, I can see how we pathologize disability by looking at it through the medical model alon, perpetuating the belief that disability only and always means inability. We look at the word from a deficit standpoint, and judge or limit others based on what they can not do, rather than providing them with the access they need in order to demonstrate what they can do. It started as just a catchphrase, but after using it as a hashtag on social media and a title for invited talks, I realized that it captured the primary objective I hope to demonstrate, that disability doesn’t necessarily mean inability.  

Last year, the university hosted the inaugural Toward an Anti-Ableist Academy conference at which you were the keynote speaker. The conference is taking place again this year with a virtual series of events throughout late October and early November. Reflecting on your experience last year, what can participants expect from the events and who should attend? 

In discussing the impact of last year’s conference with some colleagues at Rackham, consensus was that it provided a renewed and deepened understanding of the broadness and intersectionality of disability culture, as well as a realization of how the university society often falls short by only seeming to focus on specific parts of providing access – such as focusing solely on physical accessibility and not seeing the full picture, like the policies that create additional and unnecessary barriers. One example raised was the fact that there are different policies for supporting graduate student accommodations as students vs employees, rather than having the need for accommodations being connected to the individual. 

This year’s mini conference is meant to continue the fantastic dialogue that began during last year’s sessions in order to support the university’s ability to see that full picture.  The planned sessions this year will cover a range of topics, providing updates on current process changes, new initiatives, and advancements in disability advocacy on campus. The work of the Student IDEA Board, the Rackham needs assessment,  the LSA Disability Navigator pilot, and many others has resulted in growing support for a Center for Disability Culture here at the University of Michigan. Anyone who wants to learn more about how to improve the culture and climate around disability and accessibility on campus should absolutely attend!

Image of Dr. Okanlami wearing a white Michigan Medicine lab coat standing with three other individuals in front of a sign that reads "The White House."
Dr. Okanlami with Dr. Rob Davidson (back left), emergency physician in Fremont, Michigan and U-M alumnus, Dr. Joneigh Khaldoun (front left), CVS Vice President and Chief Health Equity Officer and former Chief Medical Executive for Michigan, and Kwam Tillman, Michigan Disabled American Veterans. Image provided by Dr. Okanlami.

Within our campus communities and beyond, what are some ways that individuals can work to eliminate accessibility gaps and welcome disability experiences into their everyday lives?  

The LSA Disability Navigators have prioritized building awareness of what disability is and providing support to employees who identify as disabled so they feel welcomed to the community of individuals with disabilities and have guidance on how to work through societal, institutional, and internalized ableism and move toward disability pride. Through internal training and explicit focus on disability in college-wide DEI activities, LSA is also intentionally expanding its inclusion practices in hiring and onboarding to better invite and welcome potential new members of faculty and staff who live with disabilities.

Within Rackham, they believe that in order for accommodations to work we must first eliminate the discourse that views disability as a liability of the student, and instead move to a model of potential and inclusion. This will require faculty to first acknowledge – with humility – that for many, this is an area in which they need to learn, and then to partner with others to educate themselves. 

Beyond our campus, I encourage everyone to take stock of the access they have as a default, which is often overlooked or taken for granted, and recognize that it often takes significant advocacy efforts to provide that same level of access for the disability community. Embracing disability culture and providing access and inclusion for the disability community shouldn’t be seen as tasks that fall solely on the shoulders of the disability community, nor should they reside in one specific office. The responsibility for making our campus and global community a more welcoming, equitable, and accessible place should be seen as a responsibility and opportunity that is shared by all. 

LSA answers Provided by Jessica McCuaig, Lloyd Shelton, and Karla Renee Williams

Rackham answers provided by Arthur Verhoogt and Ethriam Brammer

Additional answers provided by Pam McGuinty, formerly of ODEI, now in the College of Engineering