Stories of the Staff: Anna Schnitzer

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Anna Ercoli Schnitzer is a woman on a mission. She steadfastly lobbies for the human and civil rights of people with disabilities, and when change doesn’t happen, or happens very slowly, she occasionally “raises a little hell.”

The young Anna witnessed her own share of hell as a child. Born in Padua, Italy, before WWII, Anna remembers traveling by boat with her family across the ocean to New York “with lights off because of danger of German submarines.” When Anna was a teenager, her physician father abandoned the family, leaving her mother to raise her daughters alone.

Anna remembers, but doesn’t dwell on those painful years. She went to college in Baltimore, at the university that gave her the most scholarship money, and graduated with a degree in English Literature. Once graduated, she married Bert Schnitzer, who had just completed medical school. In 1966, they moved to Ann Arbor, when Bert accepted a position on the faculty of the Department of Pathology.

That same year, Anna, who was a stay-at-home mom until her boys turned school-age, enrolled in the U-M School of Library and Information Science (now known as the School of Information), and received her graduate degree in Library Science in 1969.

“I have always worked in libraries,” Anna says. “I supported myself through college that way, and I enjoy being and working in them.”

After getting her Master’s and before becoming a librarian, she spent several years editing, and for a time, held the title of associate editor of two editions of The Encyclopedia of Information Systems and Services.  She also did some medical transcription work, which she says was very enlightening, a kind of “behind the curtain” glimpse into the doctors’ minds.

By 1974, Bert Schnitzer had become a full professor, and in 1978, became Director of the Clinical Hematology Laboratory.

In 1983, Anna became a Reference Librarian at the Taubman Medical Library (now known as the Taubman Health Sciences Library).

Serendipitously, some years later, while helping a female doctoral student from behind the reference desk, Anna’s conversation with the student veered off onto the subject of disabilities. The student, it turned out, was studying Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and a member of the Council for Disability Concerns, founded by then-U-M president Harold Shapiro. The student invited Anna to come and speak to the group.

Anna remembers it well. “They had a good breakfast,” says Anna. She engaged the Council members in a discussion about the Taubman Library and how libraries and librarians can help people with disabilities. Suddenly, Anna’s one professional love turned into two. She was hooked.

Anna is currently the university’s Disability Issues and Outreach Librarian, the coordinator of the U-M Council for Disability Concerns, and, thanks to a nomination by her colleagues, was the 2012 recipient of the prestigious Michael E. DeBakey Library Services Outreach Award from the Friends of the National Library of Medicine, a national prize that recognizes a health sciences librarian for providing “outstanding services to rural or underserved communities.”

“When I first joined the Council for Disability Concerns,” says Anna, “few people on campus were aware of its existence.” People also associated “disabled” with wheelchairs and white canes.

Today, Anna is the chair of the James T. Neubacher Award, created in 1990 to memorialize and celebrate the live and work of U-M alumnus and journalist Jim Neubacher, who tirelessly advocated for equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities, of which he was one. Neubacher, a U-M Alumnus and Detroit Free Press columnist, died in 1990 of multiple sclerosis. His column was titled, “Disabled in Detroit.”

Anna’s Campus Efforts

Anna’s own tireless efforts include inviting speakers, setting agendas and often leading the Council’s first Wednesday monthly meetings at the Student Activities Building, as well as coordinating the week-long series of Investing in Ability events, held each year in October, and ending with the presentation of the year’s Neubacher Award winner. The big event, also free, is the Wheelchair Basketball Game, held at Crisler, between Navy and Army.

During the Invest in Ability week, and throughout the year, Anna and the members of the planning team bring together doctors, dog-trainers, vets, artists and athletes, students, staff, faculty and others, for an array of events that are, says Anna, “planned for the purpose of educating, enlightening, elevating, and informing people about the whole spectrum of disabilities.”

Another campus-wide disabilities/outreach event Anna oversees, and a favorite, for obvious reasons, is called Dogs on the Diag.  Anna says it has been so popular, it is no longer just on the Diag. “It grows every year,” she says, and its purpose is to highlight the role and benefit of therapy and service dogs to people who “literally would not be able to leave their houses.”  The trainers even bring little puppies, for socializing, which makes every passerby (even those wearing earbuds or texting) stop and smile.

Colleagues of Anna’s say that her ability to build relationships is what keeps the library’s “outreach” program thriving.  With that same spirit, grace, confidence and direction, Anna, continues adding members to the Council and engaging the community, raising people’s awareness of disabilities and lowering the stigma often associated with them. The raised awareness is the greatest intangible improvement to her work—on campus and in the community.

Tangible campus improvements Anna cites include “push” buttons near library entrances and exits, electronically opening the doors, curb cuts on sidewalks (and the seasonal maintenance of them), and the James Knox Adaptive Technology Site on the first floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, with specialized hardware and software to accommodate the information technology needs of persons with physical, visual, learning and mobility impairments.

Bert is now a professor emeritus, and the Schnitzers have six (going on seven) grandchildren.

This is Anna’s thirtieth year as Librarian at the Taubman, and eighth as chair of the Neubacher Award. Anna is lucky in love and work. She says Bert is the lucky one.

“My greatest passion,” says Anna, “is working to improve the physical and virtual accessibility to everyone in our community, regardless of individual physical or mental challenges.”

The point is, she adds, “deep down, everybody has some sort of disability. The key is kindness and civility. Kindness does matter.”

— Jan Schlain