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Forefronting disability in campus diversity initiatives

With guidance from leaders like Pat King, Steve DesJardins, John Burkhardt, and Katie Madden, Jeff Edelstein was able to expand his networks across the SOE and the larger U-M community, which strengthened the disability work that was already taking place on campus. 


“Before I came to Michigan, alumni told me that this is a place where you can pursue anything you want, as long as you are willing to spearhead it,” said recent CSHPE graduate Jeff Edelstein. “When I got here, I made it a goal of mine to listen to folx and get to know what was happening on campus with respect to disability advocacy and research. I learned about campus diversity initiatives like the DEI strategic plan, but I also learned that disability was rarely even mentioned in these conversations. I began to notice places where people were doing interesting and similar work, so I started to connect them.”

With guidance from leaders like Pat King, Steve DesJardins, John Burkhardt, and Katie Madden, Jeff Edelstein was able to expand his networks across the SOE and the larger U-M community, which strengthened the disability work that was already taking place on campus. “I originally chose U-M because I wanted to go to a university with great resources and a great higher education program, so I feel like I got really lucky to find some many people interested in disability too,” he says. 

Edelstein’s coursework in the School of Education expanded his knowledge base so that he could perform research and understand academia. He also learned more about disability by taking interdisciplinary coursework. “The courses I took outside of the School of Education were helpful and they connected me with people who are experts in disability studies, like Professors Robert Adams and Melanie Yergeau. Also, this flexibility allowed me to meet other students with whom I’ve come to work quite closely.”

One such student was Luke Kudryashov, a PhD student in English Language & Literature and Women’s Studies, with whom Edelstein collaborated to win the 2018 Munger Case Competition using their proposal for a disability cultural center. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I wasn’t connected with these people through the SOE,” he notes, “and I really lucked out with meeting people who were supportive of my work,” he says. 

Professor John Burkhardt was one of the faculty members who guided Edelstein. He says that Burkhardt often reminded him to slow down and take his time. “He recognized my drive for disability research and advocacy in higher education and told me that I didn’t have to rush to be who I wanted to be,” Edelstein says. “He taught me that a fast pace is unsustainable and that I could still do great work while taking care of myself. He helped me keep things in perspective.” 

Professor Steve DesJardins empowered Edelstein by quickly recognizing how much he wanted to do research in the field of education and disability. Through DesJardins’ courses and mentorship, Edelstein learned about educational research methods, and he was able to refine his questions in order to perform institutional research and utilize advanced quantitative methods.

Now, Edelstein is developing an article for the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability with the goal to help push disability to become a standard part of higher education research. His research knowledge and experience also garnered him a rare research opportunity at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree in Higher Education while continuing to research disability in higher education under Professor Ezekiel Kimball. Edelstein was offered a non-working fellowship for his first year in the program and began working on several research projects directly after moving to Amherst in the summer prior to beginning his coursework.

Edelstein also acknowledges Professor Pat King who connected with him through SOE’s dije initiatives. “She was clearly interested in the role of disability even within broader campus-wide DEI initiatives, so she listened and invited me to communicate with the SOE community through one of our regular community conversations. It was very encouraging that she recognized that disability was missing in these conversations and moved to remedy that.  Shifts in perspective like that tend to happen slowly, so her response was a welcome surprise,” he explains.

One of Edelstein’s proudest moments took place when he and U-M Global Scholars Program Associate Director Ashley Wiseman made an impact on campus diversity programming. They were initially introduced by Dr. Katie Madden because Wiseman is a CSHPE alumna who has previously written about disability in higher education and has a strong sense of the importance of disability and ableism as they relate to social justice and diversity initiatives. “Ashley and I quickly became partners,” says Edelstein.

They proposed a revision to the name of the series of programs run by the U-M Council for Disability Concerns each year. This was an exciting step because they felt that the original series title, “Investing in Ability,” emphasized ability over disability and moved away from meaningful, critical campus discussions. Their efforts, combined with those of other advocates within the Council, led to the establishment of a new name. Now, “Disability Community Month” heads this program series.

The names and topics of the series’ individual programs have changed as well to better reflect the interests of individuals across the U-M campus community. “We wanted to elevate the Council’s sessions to include conversations about other identities, and we wanted people to recognize disability as a socially constructed identity,” says Edelstein. This work is timely. More students and faculty with disabilities are coming to colleges than ever before, and Edelstein suggests that it’s a good time to teach everyone to be aware of the signs of ableism and current limits on accessibility across the university.  

Reflecting on his work so far, Edelstein asserts that studying in the SOE has been an ideal opportunity. “It’s a place where people can truly collaborate on work that matters to them. I was fortunate to study at U-M during a time when changes have been happening around disability, justice, and advocacy. This is a time of change that comes with a lot of opportunity.”