Professor Rod Michalko was just a teenager when tiny colourful blinking lights began to obscure his field of vision. The process of losing his sight was gradual, and he remembers specks first appearing when he was a child.
Doctors are unclear about how or why Michalko eventually became blind, but he is not focused on diagnoses or prognoses. Hired by New College in 2007 to develop and teach a Disability Studies stream of four courses (part of the Equity Studies program at New College), Michalko asserts that being disabled is a legitimate way of being in the world. “That’s opposed to our culture’s deep desire to get rid of disability, to either cure it or even rehab it,” he says. “Being blind or being in a wheelchair gives a certain perspective on the world that’s valuable. I say that my blindness is not a condition; it’s part of who I am.”
After completing his PhD in sociology at the University of British Columbia, Michalko taught sociology at several Canadian universities. He has published such books as The Difference That Disability Makes (Temple University Press, 2002). Michalko is now working to raise the profile of Disability Studies, which examines prejudices and exclusionary practices through socio-political and cultural studies. He is also developing a speaker series. “Disability Studies examines and interrogates our culture,” he says. “It teaches us a lot about what it’s like to be human.”
When Michalko – who has used a white cane to help him get around since his beloved guide dog, Smokie, passed away in 2001 – explores campus, he is often surrounded by buildings made inaccessible to people with certain disabilities by stairs or narrow bathrooms. Classroom materials on paper, PowerPoint or film exclude non-sighted students, and Michalko says the university still struggles with making web resources optimally usable for everyone. “There are all kinds of ways to make things accessible,” says Michalko, “but first we have to think that’s important.”
Michalko finds most conceptions of disability “pretty tragic,” and hopes to serve as a role model for students. People with disabilities comprise about 20 per cent of his students. “Not that long ago it was rare for students to be taught by women or people of colour and its extremely rare for students to be taught by a professor who’s disabled, even to this day,” he says.