Blog Post

Asking for your help - perceiving the unseeable

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?

 

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4 comments

One of my best friends from childhood has had severe vision problems since birth. I forwarded her your article and her first response was "When they figure it out, can they send me back in time so I don't bomb my science classes?" 

Humor aside, sciences are notoriously difficult for sighted instructors to communicate non-visually, but it's not impossible. Tactile models (suggested by my friend) and small group work could help your student perceive ideas and concepts non-visually. Additionally, model building by sighted members of your class could help reinforce concepts for them too. Without knowing the exact content of your course, it's difficult for me (as a historian) to provide other ideas, but my friend always did better with aural instruction paired with tactile assignments.

Also, from my own experience, I often appreciated when instructors would ask for my help designing projects or other modes of instruction that would better fit my situation. It allowed me to discuss what worked well for me and see what the instructor was willing to do. While it does put a burden on the student to come up with ideas, it also made me feel less guilty when something they were trying simply didn't work; I knew they wanted my input and appreciated when I let them know something that could help me more. I was often nervous that my requests would come off as "just more work" for the instructor, but I valued when an instructor saw that I was trying to make a situation better for both of us. 

Disabilities are inherently personal. It's not a guarantee that two people with the same disability will have the same luck with it. Plus, your student has years of experience navigating the educational system knowing what she tended to do best at; while the vision problem complicates that immensely, certain modes of instruction will probably still resonate with her. An honest conversation may spur ideas, even if it is hard or uncomfortable to find the right words to explain. I greatly appreciate the instructors who took the time to help me figure out other ways to participate despite any medical complications I had.

Best of luck!

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Rule #1 of  all kinds and all levels of classroom teaching is that, because there are more students than teachers, the teachers should use the students to teach.  This is so obvious when one walks into a classroom that it's amazing it seems so atypical. But the failure of most "educational innovations" usually stems from the presumption that "teachers know, students don't." Bad premise, since it reinforces how difficult it is to learn rather than creates a community of learning and learners. That premise may make the teacher feel smart, but at the direct expense of everybody else in the room.

That premise also reinforces why it is that students with disabilities are sidelined: we ALL have disabilities, and the most glaring one is that of teachers who ignore the capacities of the students with whom they work. With an ambitious student who can sense through sound and touch what others must see, you have a remarkable resource to the class as a whole.

The challenge, therefore, is to engage the rest of the class in learning how your blind student learns. And that will teach not only your subject, but how to learn - and ultimately to use and to teach - that subject. Keep in mind that Helen Keller could neither hear nor see, but taught millions of people to do both.

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Rule #1 of  all kinds and all levels of classroom teaching is that, because there are more students than teachers, the teachers should use the students to teach.  This is so obvious when one walks into a classroom that it's amazing it seems so atypical. But the failure of most "educational innovations" usually stems from the presumption that "teachers know, students don't." Bad premise, since it reinforces how difficult it is to learn rather than creates a community of learning and learners. That premise may make the teacher feel smart, but at the direct expense of everybody else in the room.

That premise also reinforces why it is that students with disabilities are sidelined: we ALL have disabilities, and the most glaring one is that of teachers who ignore the capacities of the students with whom they work. With an ambitious student who can sense through sound and touch what others must see, you have a remarkable resource to the class as a whole.

The challenge, therefore, is to engage the rest of the class in learning how your blind student learns. And that will teach not only your subject, but how to learn - and ultimately to use and to teach - that subject. Keep in mind that Helen Keller could neither hear nor see, but taught millions of people to do both.

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Hi Kristina, Daniella, and Joe,

You all inspire me! I am a special ed teacher and thank you for posting this. Kristina, you are so right on when you wrote, "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." It is so true and beautifully said. 

Part of the beauty of working with individuals with disablities is that we get the chance to see the world through a new lens. Moreover, when we use multimodalities to teach and learn, unlearn, and realearn, we see our own field in new ways. 

Daniella, Please tell your friend to keep trying with science. It can be so much fun. Please let me know if I can help. If there is a particular subject area in science and I will try and find a resource to help your friend. 

Joe, I agree that we all have disabilties. All the more reason to connect and help each other. Thank you guys for inspiring me. 

Kristina, when I volunteered at the Perkin's School for the Blind near Boston they really made science fun and accessible. They have wonderful collection of taxidermy at the school where the kids can explore. Also, the school is designed in an amazing way. For example, they have a rollar rink with speakers on each corner so that the kids know when to turn. It is such a great school! There are a lot of creative teachers there who would probably love to collaborate with you and your student.

When teaching genetics, Tinkertoys rock! You can build your DNA and then if you want you could even put Braille on some of the pieces so that your student can feel which nuclebases fit together to make codons, etc. Also, I've used gummy bears to teach genetics when explaining about the Punnett square. 

Here's some more ideas. Please check out the Perkin's School link:

http://www.perkins.org/resources/curricular/accessible-science/

Good luck and have fun exploring. Please share what you learn as well to help other teachers. Take care. :)

 

 

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