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When the World Speaks, U of T Listens

"Look at us, you are looking at yourself," says teacher whose dismissal sparks quiet, but powerful, revolution

Rod Michalko wasn't looking to be a lightning rod. But when the sparks flew and the rallies started, when the web pages and the blogs and the petitions multiplied, when the outrage echoed around the planet, it was clear the award-winning professor had galvanized a community on the verge of greatness.

Disability pride will never again be underestimated in Canada. Hold that thought as we venture forth into a new decade.

Today, Michalko is helping to put together a task force examining how disability will be studied at University of Toronto. By extension he will reveal a culture whose days of marginalization will no longer be tolerated.

"Disability is a teacher," he says. "It is a school of different voices. People with disabilities wear mirrored shades. You look at us, you are looking at yourself."

Michalko's push onto the world stage started last fall when UofT served notice his teaching contract would not be renewed after July, 2010.

There were waiting lists to get into Michalko's classes. He had placed first in a group of more than 80 professors, winning a special merit award from the university for his work as part of its equity studies program. He also happens to be blind, which gives him a unique platform from which to approach his field of study.

"No one told me before that disability could be embraced as identity," says Eliza Chandler, a PhD student in disability studies at the university, and one of the organizers of the revolution that led to UofT extending Michalko's contract for another year.

Together with Anne McGuire, a teaching assistant who is also working on a PhD, and undergraduate Isabel Lay, who is chair of the university's Equity Studies Student Union, Chandler--who is studying how disability plays out in the culture of secondary schools--was part of the revolution that drew worldwide support for reinstating Michalko.

Having harnessed this outrage, they plan to keep shining the spotlight. "We don't want to lose the momentum," says McGuire.

Disability studies is a growing field, one that has students lining up at many universities. I know. I'm one of those in Ryerson's undergraduate program delving into a culture more than ready to come in from the cold. It is a culture that refuses to be categorized by doctors pinning negative medical labels on people who are different, a culture that looks at what society can and should be doing to create communities that are inclusive.

Meanwhile, Michalko is preparing for the task force, which will report on academic plans for disability studies. "'Task force' sounds so military," he says. "Perhaps we should call it a 'working group.'"

The group will be a joint effort between UofT's New College and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). Among its members will be Michalko's partner, Tanya Titchkosky, who teaches disability studies at OISE.

"Tanya and I are going to be very assertive when it comes to the make-up of the task force," says Michalko. "It definitely should include the voices of students and people with disabilities."

Shahrzad Mojab, acting head of New College, says UofT "wants to develop disability studies as one of the main streams within equity studies." Exactly how that plan should evolve will be part of the recommendations of the task force, which should start work early in the New Year, she says.

Stay tuned.

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Reprinted from the Toronto Star, December 19, 2009, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Photo: Helen Henderson

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