About Joan Schafer

A black and white image of Joan Schafer at a race.


Joan Schafer, a Visionary

by Michelle Segar


“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,

But he with a chuckle replied,

That maybe it couldn’t,

But he would be one,

Who wouldn’t say no till he tried.”




These lines, from a poem Joan Schafer learned in school, epitomize the manner in which she chose to live her life, always opting to turn a negative into a positive, and never giving up. 


Joan was the kind of person who didn’t see a problem – rather, she saw a challenge to be overcome. Joan was an extremely creative thinker, where others may have given up, she simply devised a solution and implemented it.


Joan, even though legally blind, was a visionary. 


On moving to Flint in 1959 and discovering that she couldn’t cash a check because she didn’t own a drivers’ license, she decided to have this discriminatory practice abolished, not only for the visually impaired, but also for others who were disabled and/or didn’t drive.  She organized a successful movement in Michigan to establish the first state-wide identification program.  


Joan won many awards during her lifetime. Of note, was that she was awarded the 2005 Susan McAllister Courage Award, out of St. Paul, Minnesota. She was also selected as the featured speaker for the UM Cancer Center’s “Spring to Life’ Fundraiser the year she died. During this lecture she said: “I believe that negativity in dealing with cancer is as damaging as the disease itself. I pride myself with having a positive attitude and I am unwilling to focus on the negative. I learned early in life when I became legally blind how important having a positive belief system was. My philosophy is to not accept the status quo and any limitations or negative beliefs others may have. Rather, I believe that anything is possible, if you believe it to be so. And that’s what I strive to achieve.”


After her passing in 2007, her family established a fund in her honor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. IRWG’s mission reflects the type of activism and innovation that Joan’s life embodied. IRWG was established at the University of Michigan in 1995 to promote cutting edge research about women and gender that seeks to improve the lives of marginalized people around the world. 


The Joan Schafer Research Faculty Award in Sport, Fitness, and Disability funds pilot projects that will advance our understanding about how living with any type of disability influences access to, and participation in, sport and physical activity. Through this award, Joan’s spirit, courage, and determination can continue to inspire others to take actions to improve the world and advocate for rights for all people.


IRWG is grateful to Joan Schafer and her family for making this fund possible, and to all the donors who honor her legacy and support visionary research at the university.