Michigan Today . . . Fall 2001

Disabled students have had enough of hearing others speak for them, so they collaborated on a video that tells their story loud and clear:

Graphics from the video And You Can Quote Me On That -- Pat McCune, executive producer; Scott Mann, producer/director/videographer.

'And You Can
Quote Me
On That'

By Lisa A. Goldstein

When most people think about diversity, issues like race and culture immediately come to mind. But it's only recently that disabilities are being considered as well. College students with disabilities ranging from dyslexia, vision impairment and anxiety disorder are lobbying for such inclusion on camera. Look at me, they say. I have a right to be included; I have a right to be heard. And You Can Quote Me On That, a documentary video produced at the University of Michigan's BMC Media, gives them a voice. And it's loud and clear.

It all started with Rachel Arfa '00. Actually, it really started in her junior year with the Winter 1999 Theme Semester, Diversity: Theories and Practices. Since the 1980s, various U-M academic units have focused on a theme-on such topics as evil, food, the 18th century, death, comedy and the environment-and offered classes, lectures, cultural programs and other events related to it. Students and faculty can determine their involvement in the thematic offerings as they wish.

photo of Arfa
Arfa, who is deaf, looked over the information and was inspired to do something to promote disability awareness. Forget class credit-what the University needed was an event to open everyone's eyes, she said. "I was shocked to see that there was nothing related to disabilities," she remembered. "I felt that disabilities were considered a crucial part of diversity, since your experience as a person with a disability shapes the way you see the everyday world and go through life."

"They expect me to be a supercripple. But I'm not a supercripple. I'll be damned if I'll be a supercripple. I mean, I've been there, and I'm not going to do it. If people think I'm not being independent, well, I don't know what else they want. I live here by myself. I live in this apartment by myself and I run my business by myself. And if that's not being independent, then I don't know what is. That's tough s**t. And you can quote me on that."Matt Conaway '99 in And You Can Quote Me On That.

photo of Arfa
McCune and other members of the U-M Council for Disability Concerns (http://www.umich.edu/~hraa/ability/">) sponsored a campuswide Investing in bility Week in early October. Laura Genzlinger '01 designed the theme poster.
When Arfa came up with the idea to incorporate disability into the diversity theme semester, she met with Pat McCune, coordinator for the U-M initiative Dialogues on Diversity and administrator for the theme semester. McCune had roughly $60,000 in grant money for projects by faculty, students and staff. Before Arfa approached her, no one had ever mentioned doing a program on disabilities as part of diversity. When asked why, McCune said, "I believe that America in general is sidetracked by the mistaken idea that diversity refers only to black/white issues."

McCune asked Arfa what she would do if she could do anything to educate people about disabilities. Arfa said she would make a movie if she had the money. At first she thought McCune was asking a hypothetical question. But when McCune then asked her how her movie would differ from others, she realized McCune was serious. Arfa replied, "Many movies portray people with disabilities as very helpless, rather than being seen as individuals with abilities, skills and talents to contribute. It is usually caretakers, faculty, support services people who get to talk, but not the actual people with disabilities. Where is their voice?"

McCune agreed. She didn't want people with disabilities to be talked about as objects. She wanted them to be "the subjects representing themselves," and as representative as possible.

"I had really heinous things said by one of the deans. 'If you have the disabilities you claim, you don't belong in this school, in the profession of law.' Some people have ignorant attitudes about disabilities."Brian Pomerantz '00 JD just moved to London, England to begin work for a British firm.

Arfa described the experience as a successful collaboration of student activism working with University administration toward the same goals. McCune said that had Arfa not approached her program, most likely she would have looked at other groups such as international students, before thinking of students with disabilities.

Only 13 students are featured on video, but their experiences are quite varied. Close to 30 minutes in length, the open-captioned video comprises six parts: Challenges, Accommodations, Transformations, Stereotypes, Identity and Diversity.

Participants speak against a black background, making their words the primary focus. Footage of the campus, the students interacting in their everyday environment and scenes from a play written and performed by Mentality, a student group dedicated to raising awareness about mental health issues (see "Contagious Empowerment" by Ian Reed Twiss, Spring 1999 issue), are interspersed throughout.

"When you have a group of students who are just the same, you really limit what you can learn and take in."Cynthia Overton - PhD student in the Educational Studies program specializing in Educational Technology.

When each person speaks, the name and major are shown at the bottom of the screen. The disability is sometimes visible, such as when the speaker is in a wheelchair, but otherwise is identified only by what the speaker says. "The beauty of this movie, in addition to the stories, is that it doesn't label or identify the person's disability, so you really see who the people are, rather than your stereotype of what the disability is," Arfa said.

"I would rather be a student who doesn't need this extra assistance. I'd also like people to see that we're just students, too. We're just like everyone else, and we want the same things in life, not something so foreign and different."Heidi Lengyel '01 hopes to go onto graduate school and become a clinical psychologist working with people who have chronic illnesses and/or disabilities.

Supported by funding from Dialogues on Diversity, the videomakers taped the scenes over the course of a year. In the fall of 2000, the movie premiered in the Michigan Union before a packed audience of more than 300. Many faculty and staff members have seen it in subsequent showings. Former Provost Nancy Cantor showed the film to the deans and executive officers and arranged for a screening before the Regents at their September meeting.

The video's impact is being felt far beyond Ann Arbor. It won an Addy award for best regional public service announcement by the Ann Arbor Ad Club, a chapter of the American Advertising Federation, and advanced to the club's national competition.

A number of other campuses have created awareness videos, said Sam Goodin, director of U-M Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), but And You Can Quote Me is distinguished by "not being scripted, which is what made it so good." SSD works with more than 500 of the University's 37,800 students, Goodin says, or about 2 percent of the student population.

"Do I see myself as part of the University's diversity that they spend so much time on? No, I don't think so. I think the University prides itself so much on diversity and, you know, African Americans, homosexuals or whatever, but I think the disability population is kind of, I don't want to say hidden, but it's just not noticed as much and really paid attention to as much as some of the other groups on campus."Carey Larabee '02, majoring in Sports Management & Communication in the Division of Kinesiology.

One of the students at the premiere, Amy Frank '00 of West Bloomfield, Michigan, felt the video "brings everyone closer to an existence accessible to everyone." Even though she counted people with disabilities among her friends, Frank said that it wasn't until she saw the movie that she realized that her depression was considered a disability. "It can interfere with success at the University, with social interactions and life in general," she said. "This was an important thing for me to see."

Joanne Alnajjar '01 of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, said the video "opened my eyes to a different way of experiencing Michigana school that prides itself on diversity." She said she now understands how political the movement for disability rights is and how little is being done to overcome the injustices to disabled people.

Royster Harper, U-M's vice president for Student Affairs, was "moved beyond words" when she saw the video and has become one of its ardent supporters. "The video helped me to better understand the experiences of students with disabilities," Harper said. "There are few things more powerful than walking a mile in someone else's shoes."

Harper plans to talk with the Regents about efforts to make the campus more inclusive. "I think the video has changed behaviors, educated others about the experiences of our students and caused us to think about policies and practices that we have in place that may create obstacles to students with disabilities' educational success," Harper said.

"I also think there's maybe something scary about it [disability], because it could be any of us. Any one of us could become disabled. And maybe it's hard to look into that mirror. Ideally, universities and particularly U-M will be a place that says it's not the law that motivates us to do this, because we believe in diversity. We believe in providing education to as many different kinds of people as we can. We just want people to be able to learn and contribute."Jack Bernard '96 JD - PhD student at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, University Attorney in General Counsel's Office.

Meanwhile, thanks to the speed of e-mail and the Internet, she has received hundreds of requests for copies ranging from elsewhere in Michigan to Native American reservations in northern Alaska. All this has happened despite the lack of marketing. Discussion guides are in the works, and the video can be ordered for a small fee to cover shipping and handling through the Web site for Dialogues on Diversity, www.dialogues.umich.edu.

A doctoral candidate in history in the video, Timothy Kaiser, was reticent when first approached about the project. But being given the opportunity to talk about his disability in a comfortable and nonpitying atmosphere was great, he said. "The process of thinking about the movie and then having to articulate about my disability helped me to think about ways in which I can communicate my needs," he said. "This has helped a lot."

Michael Gonzales, a medical student, said, "Seeing others who feel exactly like I do and do the same things as me makes me feel as if I do have a valid disability and am not just slower than everyone else. The video has helped me feel less alone."

While recognizing the movie's success, Kaiser and Gonzales acknowledge that the long-term effect is yet to be seen. Gonzales said, "I don't think life has changed much at all since that time. I didn't expect it to, either. Change like this does not occur overnight. Everyone has busy lives, and there is only so much we can do."

Kaiser calls it a start. "I think it will begin the process by first showing viewers that there are students on campus with numerous disabilities. It will give their stories credibility, because up until this movie was made, did anyone really care to hear the experiences?"

Freelance writer Lisa Goldstein, who now lives in Pittsburgh, helped organize open-caption films at U-M when she lived in Ann Arbor. She conducted interviews for this story using the Telecommunications Relay Service. The free Federal Communication Commission service enables people who have difficulty hearing or speaking on the telephone talk with those who don't.

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