Cooper Charlton understands what it’s like to live with a disability.
As a freshman varsity athlete for the University of Michigan men’s lacrosse team, Charlton suffered an ankle injury that forced him to prematurely end his season. The following season, another devastating injury brought an end to his playing career.
The Neubacher Award ceremony is one of several events during U-M’s Investing in Ability celebration.
After each injury, Charlton had to rely on crutches to help him remain mobile.
“No matter who you love, what you look like, what religion you believe in, a disability, seen or unseen, knows none of these demographics. It shows people we are not so different and it unites us toward a common goal of equality and opportunity,” he says.
“When I was on crutches my freshman year waiting for the bus, I was exposed to a diverse community. All that mattered was helping someone take that first step onto the bus and making sure we got to class on time. Very simple, yet very profound.”
It was Charlton’s ability to empathize that helped make him such an advocate for disability concerns.
He began tirelessly working to bring mental health issues to the spotlight. He also helped foster a campus community that is more welcoming to people with disabilities — both seen and unseen.
His staunch advocacy and years of work across campus led to him being chosen as the recipient of the 2016 James T. Neubacher Award.
For each of the last 27 years, the university’s Council for Disability Concerns has selected a recipient for the award as a way to highlight and recognize extraordinary leadership and service in support of the disability community.
Charlton will accept the award at an Oct. 26 ceremony in Rackham Hall at 10 a.m. Regent Mark Bernstein will present the award.
Charlton’s track record of support for disability issues during his time at the university precedes his service as the 2015-16 Central Student Government president and president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
After retiring as an athlete, Charlton co-founded the Wolverine Support Network in 2014. The organization’s goal is to destigmatize mental health issues through confidential peer-to-peer support groups. He helped create the organization to support students after a fellow student-athlete committed suicide.
Additionally, Charlton served as a volunteer for the annual Army-Navy Wheelchair Basketball Game, helping bring nearly 40 student-athletes to the event and helping to coordinate a meet-and-greet with student-athletes, Paralympians and veterans.
“I’m particularly impressed with the breadth of disability issues Cooper has successfully advocated for during his years as a U-M student, using both his own experiences and his empathy for others to negotiate for improvements in both accommodations and attitudes,” says Anna Ercoli Schnitzer, chair of the James T. Neubacher Award Committee.
“He took advantage of his position as leader of the student government to meet with people in positions to actually make improvements for others on campus, and he was usually effective in achieving results. He worked to make diversity, equity and inclusion a universitywide priority and he worked personally to reframe how others view a disability.”
Jeremy Marra, a senior associate athletic trainer at U-M, nominated Charlton for the Neubacher Award.
In his nomination letter, Marra wrote that Charlton “intentionally reached out to endorse and support student organizations that supported physical and mental disability and gave them a platform to voice concerns.”
Marra continued: “I believe with him putting disability concerns on the forefront, he gave students with disabilities a voice during his presidency. He informed faculty, staff and regents of the lack of support for students with disabilities. Cooper’s biggest urge was he didn’t want to find a Band-Aid for these issues; he wanted to discover the cure.”
Charlton says the award is bittersweet for him because he worked with so many others to accomplish all of the things he did in advocating for disability concerns. He notes Ryan Bartholomew, chair of CSG’s Campus Improvement Commission and founder of the Campus Accessibility and Disability Awareness Commission, as a close friend who worked hand-in-hand with him to spread inclusion and equality to those dealing with seen and unseen disabilities.
Charlton notes that of all the ways he has helped press disability awareness to the forefront, he’s proudest that he and his colleagues were able to make it clear to university stakeholders that U-M needed more comprehensive and accessible testing accommodation centers to create an equal academic environment. Additionally, he refused to accept surface-level awareness.
“We drove deep into stigmas and assumptions placed on how people perceive and talk about disabilities, and worked to shift the culture towards compassion and advocacy,” he says.
The Council for Disability Concerns was established in 1983 by then-President Harold Shapiro to act in an advisory capacity regarding university programs and policies which affect people with disabilities.
The council established its most prestigious honor, the James T. Neubacher Award, in 1990 as a memorial to U-M alumnus Jim Neubacher, who was a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and an advocate for equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities.