It's two weeks until our new academic year begins here in Australia, and I am more than a little daunted. I have taken on what might prove to be one of the biggest, most exciting and certainly most complex challenges of my academic career.
This semester I will be teaching genetics to a class that includes a student who is almost completely sightless. The student began her studies several years ago, before she suffered a terrible illness that took her sight away in very short time. She loved her biology, and I was perplexed as to why a motivated and high achieving student suddenly disappeared between semesters. Eventually, I heard what had happened.
I have to admit to being stunned - and inspired - when she turned up with cane, assistant and incredible determination in my tutorial in our communicating in science unit. The following year, I became programme coordinator for the course in which she is enrolled and so was involved in the processes of class selection and resource provision. It was a fast-track exposure session - to the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that is just below the surface of big institutions and some of the people who staff them. And the sheer doggedness demanded of people with special requirements and their families in order to get the things they need. I had some idea of this beforehand - my extended family includes multiple people with quite disparate 'disabilities'- but I have to say I was gobsmacked at the prehistoric attitudes of some of my colleagues. The disheartening realisation was that some of them were suggesting that she drop her studies - not because she couldn't do the work, but because it was just too hard for them, the teachers.
This experience caused me to think hard- very hard- about the things that stop people doing science, and biology in particular. As a short person with a musculo skeletal disorder I have often pondered the limitations of the physical layout of the laboratories and lecture rooms in which I teach - fixed seats with attached tables that don't fit bodies that are large, short, pregnant, injured, assisted or otherwise outside some notional design parameters; or fixed lab benches fthat may be functional for a standing male of exactly five foot 10 but too high to for the 80% of my students who are female, too wide for me to close the curtains for a video or too inflexible for assistive equipment. My conclusion - it's no wonder that there is an under-representation of some minorities in science- they literally 'don't fit'. How depressing
Even before a single second of semester has passed, I have learned more than I imagined. As normal, I have revisited all of my class materials, but this time with the thought "how can I share this with Grazyna ?", "how will the screen reader software cope with this text?". It has made me realise just how much of biology rests on visual cues - colour, shape, size, comparisons-, how turns of speech priviledge the sighted - "in the slide, you will see that..."-, how 'standard operating system' corporate software just doesn't consider those with specific needs. It has also forced me to review the explanations that I offer (as a very visual oriented learner) to all my students, and dissect my own biases. How about those who think in numbers or words? Or who are kinaesthetic learners? Or the ones who think in ways I can't even imagine?
I have decided that the best person to show me the way is the student herself. She knows her needs best, even if she can't always find the words to express them. But I trust that our combined determination to make this work will help us to talk these through, and walk the journey successfully.
However, at the same time I am acutely aware that it is a heavy burden for someone to have to be teaching her teachers all along, as well as learning her own craft.
So, now I turn to my you, my colleagues. I have hit a really complex task, and my creativity in solving it only extends so far. I think this is a crowdsourcing moment. What are your ideas? Your experiences? How can I, who have always functioned in a visual mode, assist my student to perceive the unseeable?