Q&A with Michael John Carley, NYU’s New Consultant for Disability Inclusive Culture

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This picture contains a headshot of a white, middle-aged, medium build man who is smiling while wearing a light blue short and a dark blue blazer
A headshot of Michael John Carley. Description: This picture contains a headshot of a white, middle-aged, medium build man who is smiling while wearing a light blue short and a dark blue blazer.

We sat down with Michael John Carley, NYU’s new consultant for disability-inclusive culture. Read the interview below, and join us on Thursday, December 3rd to see Michael John in conversation with Lydia X.Z. Brown!

1. What are you excited about in terms of roles and responsibilities in this current position?

Where do I start? To the best of my knowledge, there’s no position like this at any university in the world. The creation of this role is the epitome of forward-thinking, non-compliance-based DEI values and practice. And so along with the opportunities for true, systemic change, the responsibilities subsequently resonate with appropriate terror. ☺

But as I learn more about the global community of NYU and the work of the Office of Global Inclusion (OGI)  it’s becoming very clear that one chief task is to help every facet here to engage with one another—in ways that make our disability community’s students, faculty, and staff all feel wanted, valued and respected, if not also admired, because as Dr. Lisa Coleman notes, our differences are our assets. Outside of that overarching idea, my duties then become dependent on the disability space we’re talking about at a given moment—physical disabilities, neurodiversity, health issues, etc.—as there may be differing charges with each. For instance, we already have so many leaders in the accessibility space including, but not limited to Faye Ginsburg, Robyn Weiss, Mara Mills, Chandani Patel—to name just a few—that my task is really to somehow better synthesize their work with one another. Yet in the neurodiversity space there’s more of a void than any need for cohesion, and so herein and with the help of leaders like Kristie Patten, Lauren Kehoe, and others, we’ll need to build more capacity.

2. And given the challenges that we are all experiencing in this pandemic can you tell us a little bit about what are you working on right now? 

Well, for the most part the pandemic has impacted how we do the work, but not so much the design of the work. We have worked on inclusive  toolkits, and there are other big projects we’re looking into surrounding neurodiversity awareness across all global sites, as well as with our DIA working group and the real need for accessibility repairs to our buildings. I continue to outreach to partners in an effort to learn how this university works—  where partners have made progress, and where more work needs to be done so that we engage where needed and not rewrite the great work so many have done over the years. Additionally, Zoom engagement allows us to expand vs. hampering our capacity to bring our academic endeavors  and critical thinking outside of the confines of NYU, to the work of the real world as we engage our external partners. As a result, we recognize the accountability from within, but also from the outside that helps to challenge, shape, and innovate our ongoing work. There have been a plethora of smaller projects that are not impacted by COVID, like our neurodiversity primer documents for faculty, committee work, document reviews, etc.

I would say that one area where the pandemic impacts my work is in terms of the crisis management aspect of such a position. Within the context of remote engagement we really have not learned how to replicate the trust we’re accustomed to experiencing face to face. I think I can compensate through the screen for most of what is lost herein, but I know how much I want to be in front of humans again to show—not tell—how well they’re being listened to. I also think as the pandemic continues the impact on individuals mental health and wellness from lack of personal engagements, as well as the stresses of the pandemic such as the intersecting and interlocking and differential impact it is having on communities of color (BIPOC), women, LGBTQ+ groups, etc.  is of great concern.  The work of OGI allows me to think about those intersections and how we learn from these and grow our work in the disability area to be attentive to all the intersections and how these are important and significant to my work with our community members.

3. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you imagine expanding work with the faculty and students in the classroom (online and hybrid)?

It may sound like an over-simplification, but mental health is the dominant challenge to remote learning, and however acknowledged this if often surface level awareness, and unfortunately it’s still often not taken seriously enough. While we have increased counseling hours, services, and personnel across NYU,  we still know for example that there are the technical issues we still have to resolve that sometimes emerge.  We also know that faculty and students aren’t aware of each other’s challenges and how we bridge these misunderstandings is also crucial . And, what is important to also note is that often neither group is in full understanding of their own challenges either—we’re all collectively learning about the challenges together and while that’s an issue, it is also an opportunity.

We have to adjust some of our classroom expectations/standards. We have to take into consideration challenges such as the student needing to turn off the camera because of sensory overload;  or, the a professor who needs to take a break off camera to assess because they do not receive the same type of feedback they enjoyed under a very different group dynamic; or, the staff member who thrives on bonding with her colleagues and is experiencing trouble in her work because she does not have the right feedback loop. We have to develop more transparent ways of communicating, we have to be more vulnerable and this all starts with a trust that we are not trying to cheat, forget, or invalidate another’s experience. We must also understand that not everyone has a quiet 12 x 12 room to study online… in other words, to understand our differences is an imperative starting point.

The more we understand how remote learning changes our interactions the better we’ll be. One pre-COVID19 example- when walking in the street we may have accidentally bumped into someone and when this happened, we often immediately experienced a surge of resentment, but then almost immediately after, we apologized. And, often, in the exchange the other quickly reciprocated; as a result, there was closure and the incident was over. Well, another  form of this bumping occurs when we are in our cars sometimes called, “road rage;” this concept reminds us that part of the challenge is based on the inability to make that apology…because we’re in our respective cars and can’t hear one another. We’re denied that closure. I believe this example is illustrative of some of the differences in remote learning and there are some overlaps and parallels.

So much of the developmental college experience traditionally has revolved around leaving home, and socializing on your own terms. For students, COVID19 presents far greater challenges. We need proactive, and innovatively designed programs, and not just the treatment of individual cases of anxiety or depression, many of which may never get reported to us anyway.

And for faculty, so used to keeping a control over the classroom environment, the temptation may be to try harder to retain the same grip, when what might be the wiser and more emotionally-healthy response (for their own well-being as well as for student performance) would instead be to relinquish that control.

4. What do you see as current challenges for creating Disability Inclusive Culture?

If achieving any aspect of diversity and inclusion were easy, we would have figured all our problems out a long time ago. This stuff is hard. It often requires painful conversations that we need to have whether we want to or not. No matter how progressive we think we are, we have enormous amounts of biases in our cultural DNA that don’t just leave our system when we flick the right switches in voting booths. The best of us all have to labor, and roll up our sleeves if we’re going to be successful. I know for myself that I FEEL like a better person when I question how much I know rather than assume authority.

I recently learned some painful lessons by spending a few years in a very white corner of the Midwest. There were a lot of people not like me in so many ways —but the difference in what should have been my allies and I was that they were convinced that their white values…were universal values—and that everyone else should adopt them. I do not believe that one cultural system should stand in as universal for all.

As most know, I’m also someone with an autism diagnosis, and as with any marginalized community there are lots of people who think themselves advanced in their attitudes towards me, and who ask me to acquiesce when our cultures clash. They do so within the context that my way of doing things (usually behavioral) is wrong and theirs is right – a type of universality. These are well-meaning folks that still retain ideological colonialism, and need help in becoming behavioral pluralists in everyday practices.

5. Could you tell us a little bit about how you have seen these challenges emerge within other higher education institutions and your work to address them?

As I get to know other institutions I see good people in D&I departments that would love to be less compliance-driven and who would love to have more disability culture within their institutions, if not disability specialists on staff. They simply don’t yet have the support of their administrations. Our job then becomes even more important in that we have to set the tone, and show them the irrefutable advantages—on every level—to make their community with disabilities feel wanted and valued, and not a burden or a problem to be solved. 

6. What do you see as emerging trends in the next five years? And dare we ask the next 10 years? 

I would love for the aforementioned innovative approaches to DEI to have arrived partly with the help of ideas (embodied so strongly in my brilliant OGI colleagues) that embrace our universal intersectionality. I would also love not to be needed in the same way again, for isn’t that the sign of our greatest victory? When all our minority and marginalized perceptions are just thought of as natural extensions of the human experience; as our assets.

More to explore

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Event Recordings – Fall 2020

September 25th | Judy Heumann in Conversation with Simi Linton: Link to Zoom recording. October 15th | Disability Visibility at the Intersections:

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