Dr. Feranmi Okanlami MLK Distinguished Lecture

Today, Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, MD, MS, director of student accessibility and accommodation services at the University of Michigan, delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Lecture: Disabusing Disabilities.” It was sponsored by the University of Iowa.

I attended Dr. Okanlami’s lecture by Zoom. I noticed he was wearing a handsomely carved wooden bow tie, which I don’t have an image for, but you can order them on Amazon, if you’re interested. I’m not the only attendee who noticed it. I used to wear cloth bow ties when I was a much younger man. I gave up wearing any cloth ties shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic began because, as everyone knows, fabric neckties of any kind generally almost never get laundered and carry all kinds of germs. The wooden bow tie is easily wiped down with sanitizers.

But this post is not about wooden bow ties. It’s about what Dr. Okanlami called “ableism” which naturally brings to mind other terms like “racism.” He showed a few images on his slides which showed another point he expanded on, which is the difference between equality and equity. The quick way for me to explain this is to quote the Milken Institute School of Public Health definition:

“Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.” — MPH@GW, the George Washington University online Master of Public Health program.

Dr. Okanlami impressed me in many ways, but one of them is his ability to give unrehearsed presentations. He hates to “give talks” as he put it, but likes to talk. 

I should explain the reason for this post’s featured image, which might seem puzzling. It’s a photo of the curb ramp connected to the sidewalk outside our home. The city requires homeowners to clear the snow from curb ramps, which, ironically, the city plows plug with snow after every snowstorm. These used to be called “handicap ramps.” I suspect Dr. Okanlami would object to the use of this label and in general it’s probably insulting, but that is what they were called for years. They are an accommodation for those who use wheelchairs.

The word accommodation can have a negative connotation, which Dr. Okanlami clarified. Many believe accommodations give an “unfair” advantage to some people. Actually, they provide opportunities for those with a different set of abilities or altered abilities to participate in society in ways that allow them to contribute to society, and even change it—sometimes in major ways.

Our curb ramp is interesting. The short length of sidewalk beyond it leads to a pile of construction rubble because there is no sidewalk extending beyond our property line on that side. I call it the sidewalk to nowhere, which is now a misnomer. There is a new subdivision under development leading north of our neighborhood. There are houses being built and many have moved in. But for now, you have to walk in the street, which is often muddy and blocked. It’s difficult to walk through it because of heavy equipment and trucks parked along the street. But that doesn’t stop people from walking there. I have never seen anyone in a wheelchair attempt to use the curb ramp. But many people use it who don’t have a visible disability. But it’s there if someone needs it, and we keep it clear of snow on principle.

Dr. Okanlami mentioned those with invisible disabilities. There was not enough time to discuss this in detail, but they include those with mental health challenges. As a consulting psychiatrist working in the general hospital, I saw many of them. They deserve a seat at the table, too.

And I remember one of my medical school classmates who did need to use a wheelchair. There was a special ramp made for him that allowed him to participate in gross anatomy class. Dr. Lance Goetz, MD, graduated with our class and has been a practicing physiatrist in Richmond, Virginia for the last 21 years.

Although Dr. Okanlami’s lecture was recorded today and will, I hope, soon be available for public view, I’m including a YouTube recording of a presentation he gave in 2018 which has the same title and very similar content as the talk he delivered today.

I think his talk evolves every time he gives it. The environment in 2018 was very different than it is now because there was no pandemic and there was a live audience which interacts in a very different way than Zoom allows. That said, the slides were essentially the same today on equity and equality, as were his essential points. He shared a lot about himself in 2018, maybe a little less today mainly because of time constraints and the difficulties inherent to virtual lectures. But he has a great sense of humor.

And he does wear very handsomely carved wooden bow ties.

James Alan McPherson Park New Sign

We headed over to James Alan McPherson Park today because we saw a news item about the new sign being up and an upcoming ribbon-cutting ceremony this coming Thursday, August 5, 2021. The party starts at 6:30 PM and goes ‘til 8 PM. There will be live music from the group Cedar County Cobras.

The gardeners have been busy since we first visited in April. White Cloud Catmint, Allium, Black-Eyed Susan, Karl Foerster ornamental grasses and more were thriving. Many of these are reputed to improve your health in various ways. Obviously knowledgeable, those cultivating this communal garden also posted a sign, “Garden Guru” and are eager to teach.

Sena cooked a delicious soup, using Gumbo File, in honor of McPherson. While you couldn’t call it gumbo, it was hearty and file is tasty. By the way, despite what you may read on the web, file is not illegal and does not cause cancer. File is produced from sassafras leaves which don’t contain safrole, a carcinogen banned by the FDA since 1960.

There is a story told by the head of the University of Iowa literature professor Ed Folsom that McPherson, apparently an excellent cook, helped sooth the tension between the Iowa Writers Workshop and the English Department. When it got to an intense pitch, McPherson said softly, “I think we need to have some gumbo.” He invited members from both organizations to his house for gumbo. And he explained how the roux held all of the wide diversity of tastes together. It may have been his metaphor for how a house divided could blend together better and be more harmonious. Ed asked him if that was the case—and McPherson said he was just talking about gumbo. Anyway, things got easier between the two departments.

Folsom summarized what McPherson did, which was to find a way to bind the soul and the body together.

It’s a little like the Men in Black movies in which eating pie (“We need pie”) was a way to solve particularly difficult crimes involving aliens and humans. You did it by doing something completely at odds, apparently, with the usual kind of problem-solving skills and strategies. You did it by introducing a diversity of approaches by a diversity of persons, baking in a sense of humor, and patiently allowing the non-logical eureka moment to evolve.

Maybe we need something like McPherson’s gumbo moment here and now in our planet’s present madness.

%d bloggers like this: