Blog Post

Teaching While Underimpaired

“People who do not have cognitive disabilities think they know what it means to have limitations but they do not.”

— Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Quoted by Cathy N. Davidson in “Handicapped by Being Underimpaired

I clearly remember a 24 hour period during which I suffered cognitive disabilities; a period during which I was not sure if my cognitive abilities would return.

I had just suffered a mini stroke. In the emergency room, I was unable to fill out the admission form because it was too difficult for me to form my letters. The effort to write the “B” for my last name was so taxing that I had to ask someone else to complete the form for me. With difficulty, I could process thoughts and answer questions, but I knew that I was not functioning at the same level I had been less than one hour earlier.

Fortunately, my cognitive skills returned and I suffered no permanent damage. But I still remember the fear of knowing that I might continue to live in a cognitively impaired state.

When Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick discussed her cognitive disabilities with Cathy N. Davidson, Sedgewick, who had cancer, was near the end of her life and knew that she would continue to live in her impaired state. In “Handicapped by Being Underimpaired,” Davidson reflected on her last conversation with Sedgewick while recuperating from “a medical event that resulted in excessive blood loss.” Although I have long since recovered from my mini stroke, I frequently reflect back on that 24 hour period of cognitive disability.

Even though I wear glasses without which I could not function in the classroom and hearing aids that help my effectiveness, I remain fairly underimpaired; much less impaired than most my students.

At the beginning of every semester, I receive a list of students who officially quality accommodations in my classes. Sometimes the reason is cognitive. Sometimes physical. Sometimes psychiatric. Never for socio-economic reasons which are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Because I have already built accommodations—which can also be called best practices—into the courses I teach, most of my students who qualify for accommodations do not need to ask me to accommodate them. For example, in the notes I send to students after each class, I include a section called “Forthcoming” where I list readings, videos, or PowerPoint presentations that I intend to use during the next class. Having access to these materials in advance is not just beneficial for students whose impairments officially qualify them for accommodations.

Recognizing that we can be handicapped by our underimpairment allows us to realize that not all brains work the same. In 2012, Davidson wrote “My brain doesn’t do comics, never has . . . but maybe some day it will. I used to marvel at my Dad, my brother, and my sister who would fight for the comics page. When my partner Ken shows me a hilarious New Yorker cartoon, I spend maybe ten minutes trying to fathom it and half the time hand it back, puzzled. It’s a form I admire so much but it eludes me . . . until I met Nick [Sousanis].” This was three years before she experienced cognitive impairment due to excessive blood loss and just after her Now You See It (2012) was published. Just three years ago, the acclaimed educator who is now a Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York Graduate Center could not understand comics.

When I first read Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening (2015), I could not fully understand it because I am not used to reading comics.The academics and text were easy for me to comprehend, but I really did not begin to appreciate the relationship between image and text until my third reading and while discussing the book with students. My students embraced the book because they are used to reading comics and graphic novels. However, they struggled with the academic and historical references. We were both underimpaired in different ways.

Like Davidson, I do my best to acknowledge my underimpairment so that it does not handicap my teaching. Teaching Unflattening challenged me, but tackling the challenge allowed me to better understand what my students experience when I challenge them; especially those students whom are handicapped by their own unimpairment.

Fortunately, one does not need to experience cancer or a stroke or a significant amount of blood loss in order to have empathy for students who require accommodations. Some of us just need to remove our glasses—or read a comic—in order to more clearly see the world.

–Steven L. Berg, PhD


This blog entry was cross posted at Etena Sacca-vajjena.


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