Syracuse, New York
Peer-to-Peer Counselor, Syracuse University
“A community that does not include all of its members is not a community at all.”
In 2003, Micah and several other students with intellectual disabilities began sitting in on regular classes at Oakland University (OU) through a Transition Program sponsored by a local school district, in collaboration with the university. During the next few years, Micah took two buses to the campus each day, attended classes, actively participated in student organizations and extracurricular activities, volunteered in the Student Activities Center and the childcare center, and was known as a “OU student”. In 2007, the university initiated a new program called OPTIONS which allowed Micah, and other students to continue learning as students at OU.
In May 2014, Micah was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.
Micah tells me about the trial that challenged Oakland University’s refusal to allow him to live in a dorm like other students.
I was going to school at Oakland University. When I went in to pay tuition, I said I could live in the dorm. They said I could live in the dorm and I applied, and they took my money. Then the vice president, who’s a very nice vice president, she just said no. I couldn’t live in the dorm because one of their policies they came up with was that I had to be toward a major, toward a degree. But I was paying the same amount of money as anyone else and taking 12 credits. They said I could live in the dorm, but then said no.
How did you find out?
I got three letters. So I set up a meeting with the vice president all on my own. I tried to tell her that I was very capable, and I traveled a lot and I was very capable of living in the dorm. They said no.
Did they give a reason?
Yeah, they kind of gave a couple reasons. They were kind of not reasons that I believed. They said I wouldn’t know how to leave during a fire drill, and that friends in the dorms wouldn’t know how to be friends with me and stuff.
How did you respond to that?
I was upset and sad, because I probably have more friends than the vice president and most of the people that work at the university.
So they had a wrong idea about you?
Yeah. I kind of took the next step of trying to go to my school’s board of trustees, and I tried to explain to them that I was very capable. I thought because they were the board of trustees, I thought they would overturn the ruling, but no, they followed what the vice president said.
But the cool thing is, after we find out, I had a friend that was in my fraternity. I had joined a community service fraternity, and I had a friend that was living in the apartment close to campus. I lived there every Tuesday night. It was very cool. I could live away from my parents and stuff. That was cool. My housing case took two years. I was living with my friend some of the time, in his apartment, then I was living at home some of the time.
What was the hearing like?
In my lifetime, I never thought I would have a lawyer, but I had a lawyer. He was a great lawyer, Chris Davis. He and I learned a lot. It was through the Michigan Protection Advocacy. It’s an agency that helps people who have disabilities. It doesn’t cost money. They work through the state. I was questioned for five hours in a room.
There was their lawyer and then there was a lawyer that they kind of hired from some big law firm.
It sounds like their argument was that you did not have the ability to live there.
Yeah, that was their big thing. Every month we would go to the board of trustees and we would meet. Meet them and try to explain to them. Many people came and spoke at the meetings saying I can do stuff. We got notes sent to them saying that I was capable of living there, and we hoped that they would make the decision then. It was in 2008 that we went back to the board. We thought they would overturn the ruling, but they followed what the school said. I told them I could live there as a test and try it out and see how it goes. Things like that. But no. They kept it going.
So you actually went to trial.
Yeah. It was like a last resort. I was hoping that they would just move on and be happy and say ok.
Were you nervous about it?
No, I wasn’t nervous. I was very pleased. I knew that I was on the right side. I knew that I was very capable of living in the dorm.
In my previous conversation with Micah’s mother, Janice, she said: “Five hours of deposition. They put the vice president right across the table from him; they put a video camera on him. Five hours. When it is over, he gets in the car; I was waiting. I want to know everything about it, but I’m practicing being a good mother, and I keep my mouth shut. I just ask the question, ‘So, how you doing?’ He goes, ‘The very last question they asked me, Mom, was, Do you think the vice president is discriminating against me because of my disability?’ And I told them, ‘Yes.’ Then Micah turns to me, and he says, “Do you think I hurt her feelings?’”
When did you learn about the decision?
The decision was made January of 2010. I was in Florida on vacation. Out with my family and seeing my grandma. It was cool that I found out with my grandma. I got a phone call. It was my lawyer. He said, “I just heard that you won.” I said “Oh, that’s cool.” He explained what we had to do. Things like that. We were worried that they were going to try to appeal. They kind of appealed, but they didn’t win the appeal somehow during the appeal process.
What was it like when you entered the dorm for the first time?
Yeah, it was cool, spending the first night there. I had lunch and dinner with people on my floor. It was fun being in the dorm room, but I had to fight for two years just to live in a small little dorm room. (Laughs)
Why do you think the school fought so hard against your request?
Why I think they fought so hard is because they were trying to show that they were right. They were trying to show that they knew that they were right, they were the right people to win. But I’m not sure why they fought so hard. I was capable of living in the dorm, I think. They wasted tons of cash and money on that. The sad thing and the unfortunate thing after I won and after I graduated, a couple of months after that, they unfortunately closed the program I was in. Before I left, I gave the vice president a poster, my famous quote I like: “A community that does not accept all of its members is not a community at all,” and I do like that quote a lot.
Have you had any conversations with her since the decision?
She was nice when I came by her office before I was heading out to graduate. She was nice. In a couple years from now, I would like to meet with her and see why she really did it. I don’t know. I would like to meet with her in a couple years just to see what her ways of thinking, why she really spent all this money and time and stuff. I was home visiting this summer, but I didn’t stop by her office. I haven’t seen her that much
How did you feel about the people who didn’t want you living in the dorm?
Some days it was easy, and some days it was hard to do a case. I knew in my heart that I was not doing it for me but I was doing it for other people that would come right after me.
Janice: “It baffled him. Not unlike any of us might, he took it personally. He’d say to me, ‘Why doesn’t the vice president understand that I can take the bus and that I can do all these things, Mom?’ And I’d say to him, ‘Micah, you know people weren’t upset with just Rosa Parks sitting down on the bus. They could take one Rosa Parks. They just didn’t want all African-Americans sitting on the bus and going to schools and having the equal rights. It’s about who comes after Rosa Parks.’
When you give these talks across the country about your experiences, Micah, what do you want people to know?
I want them to know that people who have disabilities have dreams and if they have a good team and a good family, they can get support from their family and stuff. I want people to understand that people with disabilities have dreams and can believe in their dreams.
You sound very fair and very open-minded to me.
It’s just how I’ve grown up.
A year before we talk, Micah was asked to keynote at the “disAbled and Proud” conference at Syracuse University which led to his present position there. “I was impressed by the work they’ve been doing in disability work and all kinds of work. Inclusion and stuff. After being there, I thought of like moving here and stuff. I thought of moving there, because they’ve been doing work on disability for the last 40 years. I just thought, I love living in Michigan; I lived there my whole life. But I just thought of trying something new.”
In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Micah to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.