Micah Fialka-Feldman

SU teaching assistant lives his life to advocate for disability rights

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Micah Fialka-Feldman’s elementary school in Huntington Woods, Michigan, had a very specific rule: Children with disability needs had to walk through a “special” door to get inside the school, while everyone else would walk through the normal entrance.

But Fialka-Feldman, who, at the time was in the first or second grade, didn’t think that was right.

“I just came home one day and I told my parents, ‘I want to go in the same door as my friends,’” said Fialka-Feldman. With the help of his parents, Fialka-Feldman brought his concerns to the school, and was eventually able to go through the same entrance as everyone else.

This seminal moment began a life of self-advocacy for Fialka-Feldman, instilling in him a passion for disability rights and justice.

Fialka-Feldman, 31, identifies as a person with an intellectual disability, and uses assistive technology, such as his iPhone or speech recognition software, to help with reading and writing.

He’s an employee of the School of Education and the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education at Syracuse University, where he currently works as a teaching assistant and holds seminars. Fialka-Feldman is also a graduate of InclusiveU, an individualized program within the Taishoff Center that supports students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

(InclusiveU) has helped me learn and grow from having a chance to teach students that are going to graduate and maybe one day have a student with a disability in their classroom.
Micah Fialka-Feldman

InclusiveU participants are able to take courses in any subject they wish — theater, physical education and chemistry, to name a few — but Fialka-Feldman’s passion lies in disability studies — he loves learning about the history and culture surrounding disability rights and its advocates.

It’s a passion that also garnered him national attention. In 2009, Fialka-Feldman sued Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, for accepting and subsequently revoking his application to live in one of their dorms. Fialka-Feldman had previously been commuting two hours from home and became excited about the possibility of living on a dorm after helping his younger sister move into hers.

The university’s reasoning for refusing his housing was based on the fact that Fialka-Feldman — a student taking a full load of courses and paying full tuition — was in a special program and not working toward a bachelor’s degree.

It took two years, but he won the case.

I wasn’t asking for them to build a new dorm for me, or anything. I was just asking them for a chance to have the full college experience.
Micah Fialka-Feldman

This same passion for disability rights is what brought him to Syracuse in 2012 to take classes through the InclusiveU program. It also brought him to Washington, D.C., in 2013 for a summer internship at the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities through the American Association of People with Disabilities.

That passion also caught the eye of President Barack Obama, who appointed him in 2014 to serve on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. Fialka-Feldman occasionally travels to the nation’s capital for the PCPID, which serves as an advisory committee to the president and the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Beth Myers, director of the Taishoff Center, said she knows Fialka-Feldman so well, it seems like they’ve known each other for a very long time. They met through a professor from the David B. Falk School of Sport and Human Dynamics, who Myers said referred to Fialka-Feldman as the “Martin Luther King of the disability rights movement.”

“You know that’s a really significant thing to call somebody,” Myers said. “Really think about what it means — how does somebody make these big sweeping changes for a particular community of marginalized people?”

This semester, Fialka-Feldman is a TA for a class that Myers teaches, SPE 311: “Perspectives on Disabilities,” which examines the 13 federal categories of disabilities. In addition to doing what other graduate assistants do —  taking attendance, grading papers, leading class discussions from time to time — Myers said Fialka-Feldman adds “a fantastic perspective” by sharing his own, personal experiences with a disability, making the class relatable for her students.

Fialka-Feldman also runs a self-advocacy seminar in which he encourages people with disabilities to make their voices heard and to establish a circle of support with family and friends.

That’s something that Fialka-Feldman does well, Myers added — he knows not only how to ask for help, but also who to ask, and not everybody with disabilities is able to do that.

Micah’s teaching is about how you can combine self-advocacy and growth into making decisions for yourself, but also how to build up your community of people who will help you make decisions and help you carry out those decisions. He’s able to do that in a really personal way that other people can’t.
Beth Myers, director of the Taishoff Center

Jordan Feldman, a senior selected studies in education major, met Fialka-Feldman during his first semester freshman year at a Disability Student Union meeting. It wasn’t until the following semester, however, that the two became good friends through the Peer 2 Peer program within InclusiveU.

He now helps Fialka-Feldman as part of his support staff through a program at the Resource Center for Accessible Living, where he assists Fialka-Feldman with “independent living skills” within the community. These skills include budgeting, buying groceries and voting in last week’s primary.

The program has strengthened their friendship, he added, in the sense that they now spend more time together outside of their work on campus. He also stressed Fialka-Feldman’s strong understanding of his self-advocacy skills, drawing from his own experiences and sharing what he’s learned with others.

“People just gravitate to his positive energy,” Feldman said. “It’s tough to describe these intangible qualities that make him who he is. He’s just welcoming to all sorts of people.”

When he was in elementary school, Fialka-Feldman opened the door — literally —  by making his voice heard. Now, he’s dedicated his life to opening doors for others like him.

Said Fialka-Feldman: “I want everyone to learn that people with disabilities can have a voice, and know that people with disabilities can be involved in the community.”

Banner photo by Bridget Williams

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