Liveblog: Edward Sanders, From Prison to Paralegal

This is a liveblog taken at the University of Michigan School of Information on September 19, 2018. Any mistakes are my own.

Edward Sanders
with Kentaro Toyama
Information Alliance for Community Development

Sanders entered prison in 1975, at age 17. Convicted of first degree murder as an accessory to murder and sentenced to life.

Sanders had mentioned to his grandfather that he was going to try to make everything he could out of his time in prison. Had a third grade education going in. Had to give up the luxury of televison and radio, but saved to go to school. Started in remedial classes, then moved to GED programs. Immediately signed up for college through Macomb Community College and worked as a teacher's aide. He intentionally delayed graduation because he would have to stop taking classes after he graduated. Some prisons were more progressive than others, school was a way to get out of that environment for a while.

School wasn't intended for inmates sentenced to life. He would have to wait for someone with a lesser sentence to cancel in order to get into classes. Many inmates, including Sanders, wanted to learn more about how to defend themselves in courts.

Sanders joined the lifer law program or "lifers." It was run mostly by war veterans. Some used their GI payments to pay for attorneys to give lectures for inmates. Talked to peers who were writing their own legal documents. Many of them had been in prison multiple times due to addiction and had learned about the legal system.

Sanders looked forward to graduating with his Bachelor's degree, but had no hope of leaving to find a job. Instead he focused on helping his fellow inmates.

Kentaro asks how Sanders felt when he got out.

The first week was about getting back into society. UMich and WSU social work students worked with him. Three members of his "reentry" team brought his sisters to pick him up. The next couple days were spent getting ID, bridge card (SNAP), and registering to vote. Sanders stresses the importance of voting: "choose your own fate." The first day, his team took him out to lunch. Now he takes others out to lunch as a way to say thank you.

Sanders knew a former inmate who had gotten a law degree and passed the bar, but is not allowed to practice in Michigan. He looked at that situation to judge his own path forward.

Kentaro asks about digital technology.

In recent years, cell phones had started coming in. He says the best technology you could get in prison was a pen. They had typewriters and word processors, but they were taken away because they allowed the inmates to litigate too well. Inmates were given access to a law library after a difficult legal fight. Had computers, but no internet access. The law library was a safe haven for him.

In his first week out, his sister made him get an iPhone (now he uses an Android). He hasn't needed a dictionary since he got out of prison.

There were many challenges getting used to digital technology. Working with Kentaro Toyama and Finda Ogburu helped him overcome these challenges.

Sanders explains that the three worst institutions in society are slavery, war, and prison. They are traumatizing. There's an institutional bias built into prison. Guards don't like imates to be better educated than they are. Inmates had to "dummy down." Draws parallel to war. In war, some remain behind to get education. Education helps soldiers re-integrate into societiy. Sanders argues that it can do the same with prison. It's not easy for inmates to get jobs after being released. Now, you need to use the internet to apply to jobs. Inmates aren't allowed to get that experience.

When applying at McDonalds, he made a mistake and didn't submit the online application. He went in for the interview and they did it anyway. If he had applied online, his application would have been discarded without a human seeing it. By the time the interviewer got to asking about his felony, he'd made such an impression that he got the job.

There is a battle for computer literacy. Inamtes need it to be successful and reenter society. Anyone who has the ability to help can help reduce crime. He praises volunteers from universities who have helped him and other inmates. He explains that the real world experience also helps students gain a deeper understanding of information and improve their retention.

Audience Questions

Q: High school students are often preparing for a life among gangs. What would you tell them?

A: All of us can make decisions, but not all decisions are quality decisions. We need to learn to make quality decisions if we have the faculties to do so. He references the Koran: the worst thing is to have an ability and not use it.

Sanders ends by telling audience to make a difference, even if we've made mistakes.

Liveblog: Creating Radical, Accessible Spaces

These notes were taken live at the University of Michigan School of Information on October 23, 2015.

Jane Berliss-Vincent: Assistive Technology Manager at the University of Michigan, author of Making the Library Accessible for All.
Terry Soave: Manager of Outreach & Neighborhood Services at the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled and Ann Arbor District Library.
Carolyn Grawi: Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living.
Paul Barrow: Public Services Librarian at MLibrary.
Joyce Simowski: Information Services/Outreach Librarian at Canton Public Library.
Melanie Yergeau (Moderator): Assistant Professor at University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature, with a focus on Disability Studies.

Melanie begins by introducing the panelists. Paul works on facilities and front desk issues. His first job was working for a man with Cerebral Palsy and the lessons he learned have stayed with him. Joyce works with older adults. Jane, a UMSI alum, wears many hats, including makeing sure the University of Michigan public computers have accessible technology, and collaborating on web accessibility. Terry builds partnerships with community organizations in order to reach populations that aren't typically engaging with library services. Carolyn works with individuals having many types of disabilities at the Center for Independent Living, and has more than one disability herself.

Paul has increasingly observed that individuals with disabilities are not identifying publicly and asks how to help them. Carolyn suggests making it clear on materials that it's ok to ask for accommodations. Some accommodations can be expensive, but if you know ahead of time which ones are needed, you can avoid unnecessary expenses. Terry stresses that you have to know your community because it's impossible to accommodate everyone all of the time. You can put up a sign, but if someone can't read it, what do you do next? Terry adds that it's very challenging to understand the things that you take for granted when working with someone who has a disability. Terry tries to make it easier to do that.

Jane tells a story about going to AADL with Jack Bernard, Associate General Counsel at UMich. They went around to different desks and asked whether the library had accommodations for disabilities. Everyone was respectful and knew how to access resources. Carolyn adds that when those resources are easily available to the disabled community, they are beneficial to everyone.

Jane describes how universities are accommodating a wider range of disabilities: learning disabilities, etc., when a couple decades ago, the university worked mostly with sight disabilities.

Audience question: Is anyone providing healthcare accessibility?

Jane: receiving healthcare often involves filling out inaccessible forms with small print, which may not be available in languages other than English. Carolyn just met with a group of medical students learning about compassionate care. There's definitely involvement, but she wishes there was more. A lot of what already exists would benefit from being more standardized. Medical students have to meet with community services, but not every student can meet with every service. It's key for those students to share their that information with each other. She adds that it's important to include the person with the disability: "Nothing about us without us."

Melanie asks whether anyone is collaborating with disability organizations. She gives the example of autism. In autism awareness month, groups like libraries can create well-meaning but ill-advised displays and programs, like advertising organizations that promote misinformation, offering programs that exclude the autistic individuals. Jane talks about the importance of a back and forth dialog. You can't know what people want unless you et them involved and ask them. Carolyn: the Ann Arbor CIL works closely with many organizations. One example was working with the AADL to make the front entrance more accessible. Collaboration isn't always simple, but it's beneficial. Carolyn gives another example, of working with fourth graders in public schools. Why fourth graders? They are at an age where they are open to learning, like to share what they learn with each other, and speak up about the things that they need themselves. A student who had taken one of the workshops once ran into the workshop leader at a theme park and told them what they thought the park was doing right and wrong.

Audience question: How to you ensure that the population you're serving is aware of your services? Terry has outreach staff, works with doctors offices to put information in waiting rooms, and also provides institutional accounts to other institutions that may be working with elligible individuals. By far most people learn about services by word of mouth. Places a sticker for a large-print service inside all of the library's large print books. People like to help, and making connections is an easy way to help. Carolyn: now you can access a lot of materials digitally, so you don't need to come in physically. That can be good for individuals with disabilities but can make it difficult to provide them with information.

Joyce tries to determine and respond to the needs of the community. Carolyn: we all try to follow the ADA and provide "reasonable accomodations." Jane brings up small, light-up magnifiers. They're useful and inexpensive and can be used to provide information to people who need them.

Audience question: how do you deal with the challenge of helping disabled individuals be courteous to those with other disabilities. Jane: sometimes you have "dueling disabilities" like someone who turns a monitor off because the light is a problem, but someone else might not be able to figure out how to turn it back on. It's a challenge. Paul thinks libraries are special because they are a center for conversation. Paul gives the example of moving power outlets from the wall to the table to prevent creating tripping hazards with power cords. Just having a conversation is very powerful. Humans are reactive by nature, so let's react by having a productive conversation. Carolyn agrees that libraries are one of the best places for different types of people to get together.

Audience question: Has background in rural libraries. If you have limited resources, what are the core principles you encourage a library or other public organization to pursue. Jane: listen to your patrons. Finding out what people need may be easier in a small group. Carolyn: maximize your open space. It's useful to more people. Joyce: partnerships can help, like having meals on wheels deliver books. It can be hard to do these collaborations unless they're mutually beneficial, so the collaborations have to be found on a case-by-case basis. Terry: different organizations have different types of funding, which affects which types of collaborations are easier. Paul: libraries used to brag about collections, but they're all the same now. Instead, focus on services. Jane: libraries are not just book collections anymore. In rural areas, they may be points of access for the Internet or job searching.

Audience question: The term "universal design" gets thrown around a lot. What are small changes that make things better for everyone? What is a radical accessible space, and where have you seen one? Jane: Interested by the convergence between "bring your own device" and accessibility. Now universities are moving towards "bring your own everything." Many of the features being used on mobile devices are taken from assistive technology: autocomplete, zoom. The first typewriter-like device was developed by Pellegrino Turri to write letters to his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. Carolyn: we try to describe attachments. Having inclusive seating helps: making different types of seating (front, back, etc.) accessible. It's important to be open to feedback and take it as constructive even if it seems critical. Paul wishes that physical spaces were more configurable.

Audience question: The state is putting accessibility as a low priority. What can we do to make it a higher priority? The CIL has ongoing discussions with the state legislature, but sometimes difficult to make progress because of a lack of bipartisan interest.

Closing comments. Jane: think holistically. A towel dispenser may be ADA-compliant, but it doesn't help if you place it where someone in a wheelchair can't reach it. Joyce sees advancements in technology as making a big difference. Be observant of what people need. Carolyn: be patient and tolerant if someone asks for something you don't know or isn't understanding something. Paul: be radical, do what's right, not what people did before.