Access at the Outset

My last few days of calm are dwindling: the summer semester begins next Tuesday. I’ve finished my syllabus and course schedule, plugged in all the links and files on Blackboard, and gathered up the necessary textbooks. I’m putting the finishing touches on my Welcome Letter, a document I email to my students a few days before the course begins.

The Welcome Letter (WL) is a trick I snagged from the realm of online teaching. Many online instructors send out their version of this document to introduce students to the course, tell them where to find readings and assignment prompts, and explain how the course will proceed. Because I will give a face-to-face course introduction on Tuesday, I don’t clutter the WL with info about the course specifics. I just explain how to navigate our Blackboard page, give my contact info, and offer a few tips for getting started with the course readings.

But just before my cheerful signature (“Cordially, Professor Michael”), I’ve added a final clause: Access Needs.

Any students with disabilities are free to contact me with access needs. On the first day of class, we will be dealing with printed handouts and video lectures. If you require large print or other accommodations, just send me an email explaining your needs.

Why did I include this statement in my letter? How likely am I to have a disabled student in my class? Well, based on my own experience, not very likely. I’ve been teaching for four years, and I’ve never had a blind or Deaf student, never had a wheelchair user. I’ve had a handful of students with learning disabilities, but no one has ever asked for large print or other alternate formats.

The statement exists on my WL for a few reasons. I’ve yet to have my First Blind Student, but I was a first for almost every instructor I had. And I remember the reactions: good, bad, awkward, ecstatic, nervous. I want to make sure that disabled students feel acknowledged by my WL. Explicit acknowledgement is so much more powerful than implied acknowledgement.

Another priority is visibility. Even if my access statement doesn’t apply to any of my current students, these nondisabled students get to see what an inclusive space looks like. It’s a place where access is elevated, shown off, bragged about. Begone, dreary legalese of accommodations! I want to make access sparkly and fun!

I plan to build a classroom that welcomes as many different bodies and minds as possible. I want to make space for imagination. I know I can’t physically prepare for every kind of student, but I will make my classroom a space where the dialogue of difference thrives.

A commitment to access needs to envelop the course. It’s not enough to rush through the required disability statement on Day One. Access must be addressed before the course begins. Forethought and imagination are what separates access from accommodation—and they’re qualities I want my students to cultivate.

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Designing the Parachorus—Or Why I Sing with a Dog

In his 2011 TED Talk, British conductor Charles Hazlewood insists that music-making depends not on skill, but on trust. Describing past and present musical projects, Hazlewood emphasizes how trust grows through collaboration. “Where there is trust,” says Hazlewood, “there is music—by extension life.”

One of Hazlewood’s remarkable projects is the British Paraorchestra, an ensemble of disabled musicians. Paraorchestra, which debuted at TED in November, 2011, is Hazlewood’s attempt to provide a space for professional musicians with disabilities—often overlooked by professional musical organizations.

Though disabled musicians may be more prominent in 2015, the prevailing question is always, “How will they cope?” How will the blind doctoral piano student handle complicated printed music? How will the paraplegic horn player keep up with the orchestra?

Guesses made by nondisabled authorities can outweigh the actual circumstances of a disabled person’s life – as an employer, a graduate advisor, or a teacher attempts to foresee every pitfall. This preemptive troubleshooting –regularly  performed without the disabled person’s input, despite their closeness to the situation – is an example of what Benjamin Zander calls “the world of measurement.” Zander, another influential British conductor, describes two worlds: the world of measurement and the universe of possibility. (Find out more here.) In the world of measurement, every “what-if” is a potential snag, a hiccup in the smooth machinery of organizations. Every deviation is an error, and all errors are preventable, as long as we never let our guard down. In the universe of possibility, every “what-if” is a chance to learn, to imagine.

Paraorchestra is a project in the universe of possibility, a chance to re-imagine the kinds of people we expect musicians to be—and the kinds of instruments we expect them to play. It’s a chance to reinvent how we judge our bodies and our instruments – where one ends and the other begins. By establishing Paraorchestra, Hazlewood helps us question the traditions of musical performance—norms set by nondisabled musicians. If every musician onstage is disabled, “disability” can no longer be imagined as a barrier to music-making. The troublesome “what-ifs” are banished by the most effective brand of activism: people sharing their passion with others.

Though I’m not an orchestral musician, I want to bring Hazlewood and Zander’s ideas into my musical endeavors. In my 15 years of choral experience, I have always been the only singer onstage with dark glasses, my white cane tucked between the folds of a black chorus dress. No director has ever taken issue with my onstage needs, but I feel a pressure to conform every time the chorus receives a speech about “visual unity.” Even when I have mastered the choreography, body angles, entrances, and exits, I am aware of my sense of difference on the risers.

But awareness is not shame. Now, when I think about the singers who stand beside me, I ask myself, Where are the other blind musicians? Why aren’t they here with me, forging trust and performing a message of inclusion? For each time I stand on the risers with my dark glasses, I am offering a message of what it means to live a life. I want my presence to show the audience that there is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about a blind singer fully participating in a musical organization. There is no magical “overcoming” here. I carry my disability into rehearsals and onstage. Performing on the risers doesn’t make me nondisabled; it makes me human.

Two new developments are allowing me to extend my musical activism to new audiences: my guide dog and my new quartet. Though York has been to several chorus rehearsals, he and I shared our first chorus performance earlier this week. The informal setting was an ideal place for York to practice his performance training:  I placed him in a down-stay at my feet and kept one foot on his leash.

When I tell people that York will not be on the competition stage with my chorus in April, they laugh and say, “Of course not!” Because our contest songs are accompanied by vigorous choreography and because I am placed in the center of the chorus, I have chosen to leave York backstage with a friend. As I acknowledge the logic of this choice, I drift into the universe of possibility. Will all ensemble musicians be forced to leave their service dogs in the wings forever? What would happen to a guide dog in a Parachorus?

While I rehearse and perform with my quartet, I can conduct my own Parachorus experiments. With advice and encouragement, my quartet members have helped me develop York’s performance etiquette. He lies at my feet throughout every three-hour rehearsal and transfers this behavior to our live performances. We are perfecting his position because he will accompany us on the competition stage in April. When we sing with York, my quartet and I can redesign the performance space and create new expectations.

No one should be surprised to see a disabled musician waiting to audition or perform. If disabled and nondisabled musicians can make music together onstage, they can make lives together offstage. I want to replace the skepticism of measurement with an invitation to imagine, to collaborate.

Practising Inclusive Access [Reblogged from Dr. Hannah Thompson, UK]

I’ve decided to share a post from Blind Spot, a fantastic blog written by Dr. Hannah Thompson. In this blog post, she presents several simple suggestions for making conferences and meetings more accessible to disabled participants:

“As I become more involved in Disability Studies as a discipline, I find myself increasingly invited to attend disability-themed events at both my own and other institutions. These range from academic conferences where I present my work and discuss the work of others, to talks for a general audience about issues around disability, and meetings and workshops about improving support for both disabled students and staff across the HE sector.

The organisers of such events do a great job of ensuring that they are always wheelchair accessible. But disabled access is about a lot more than wheelchairs. Recently I have found myself in the somewhat paradoxical position of discussing the importance of disability awareness-raising during a number of events which were not fully accessible to me. Powerpoints are almost always used, but I rarely encounter a speaker who takes the time to describe the images on the screen. Handouts are often circulated but unless they have been sent round in advance, I am unable to access the information they contain.

Practising inclusive access is not as onerous as it sounds. In fact many of the suggestions I list below are incredibly easy to incorporate.”

Read the full article here.

I can’t count the number of blindness events I’ve attended that have ignored principles of universal access. Even events designed to help or encourage blind people forget to enlarge their handouts or direct newcomers to the meeting with accessable signage. What kind of message does such forgetfulness extend to a newly blind person?

These guidelines are not just for disability-related organizations. Failing to extend access to all participants in a discussion is like printing 24 handouts for 26 students – or deliberately printing the materials in a foreign language. If we take this access out of a disability context, the measures become inexcusable; you wouldn’t expect a student to “just listen and follow along” without a handout when everyone else has their own copy to annotate.

As a moderator, teacher, facilitator – as a leader of any kind – you have a responsibility to welcome everyone at the table. Inclusive access is no longer about doing the legal minimum (“Well I’ll address those needs in the future if she happens to come up and tell me about the problem”). It’s about empathetic planning. The essence of forethought is that it attempts to anticipate what others may need.

We all know our clients, our students, our staff. Many of our disabled staff give us regular visual reminders – a dog, a wheelchair, a white cane, a hearing aid. Let’s decide in this moment to be proactive, to engage in a dialogue about effective methods of presentation before the meeting even starts.

Everyday empathy is what builds a just world.

I Only Have Eyes for…Grammar: Creating a Multi-Sensory Method for Teaching Writing

As a writing instructor with low vision, I spend my life trading between a large white stick and a small white stick. The large one, of course, is the cane that helps me navigate my work environment. I open my classroom door, cane in hand, and proceed to my desk. At the desk, I fold the cane and it disappears – a quick sleight of hand for the students present. Students who enter the room after me and leave before me will not know I use it. I trade the cane for a small white stick with a black cap, the dry-erase marker that enables me to convey my thoughts in visual language on the large whiteboard behind my desk.

Despite my blindness, vision occupies the central role in my classroom. In each class session, I trade one tool of vision for another—oscillating between the cane that compensates for my low vision and the marker that relies on the sight of my students. Even when I am not using my small white stick, my students complete primarily visual tasks.

In my first class, I guide the students through an exercise called Flash Peer Editing (FPE). FPE is something I created on the way to class, but I’m sure that the idea isn’t really mine. When you study, teach, and tutor writing, you forget who invented which pedagogy. However, I try to put my own spin on this exercise by incorporating aural and visual processes.

Flash Peer Editing works like this. Students bring two copies of their paper to class, keeping one in front of them and passing the other copy to their right. At this point, I use my little white stick to write a series of “rules” on the board, each brief rule corresponding to a round of rapid editing. At the end of each round, students pass the papers to their right. In Round 1, students should mark 3 things that are well executed in the paper, such as graceful sentences, apt word choice, or logical arguments. In Round 2, students should mark 3 sections for improvement—like awkward phrases, misspelled words, ill-defined concepts. They do not have to correct the problem—they just have to draw attention to it.

Round 3, another visual exercise, offers students the chance to search the paper for words from my Banned Words and Phrases list. The list contains 40+ words and phrases that tend to weaken student writing—phrases such as “The writer does a good job of X” or “The writer is just trying to Y.” Words like “very,” “utilize,” “totally,” and “huge”—and phrasal verbs like “talk about,” “back up,” “point out” and “go on to say”—are also on the list. My goal here is not to make students afraid or ashamed of using these words. Rather, I hope to show them that there are more descriptive words out there (and “out there” is also on the list). In Round 3, students readers circle any banned words that catch their eye as they read. They do not have to complete a meticulous search for every banned word in the paper.

Finally, in round 4, students experience their paper in a chiefly aural way. Students pass their papers to the left until each has his or her own work again. Then, they keep the marked copy of their short paper and hand the clean copy to a partner. Turning over the marked copy so that they won’t be tempted to look at the text, they listen to their partners read their work aloud. As the partner reads, students note any observations  they have about the sound of their work. They repeat this process twice, so both partners can hear their work aloud.

This round is undoubtedly my favorite because my classroom suddenly fills with the sound of self-conscious students reading aloud. Sometimes they adopt funny accents or pretentious voices to cover their unwillingness to read another’s work; other times, they read the writing faithfully and seriously, without attempting to alter pronunciation or inflections for comic relief. Invariably, the students listening to their own work begin to giggle and squirm. They seem to say, “Did I really write that?” Occasionally, the listeners express delight and surprise at the sound of their well-constructed sentences.

While this version of peer editing does incorporate aural and tactile elements—students hear their work aloud and mark another’s work—I am disappointed by its primarily visual nature. I want students to understand the importance of hearing their work aloud. Often, we edit as we read visually—our brain runs a sophisticated “autocorrect,” transforming hastily mistyped words until they resemble what we intended to type. Reading aloud thwarts this process, especially if you choose an unsympathetic reader who will stumble and stutter over your awkwardly worded phrases. Even if your reader can guess at your meaning, this guesswork takes some time; it will not occur within the first read-aloud.

I am spoiled by the text-to-speech software on my computer. During all the stages of my writing process, Alex, the obliging voice on the Mac OS, reads my work aloud—and, though he is remarkably expressive, he is also unsympathetic. He stumbles over my misspellings and convoluted sentences just as any human reader would.

In my second class, I again pick up the dry-erase marker to begin a highly visual explanation of sentence parts. I scrawl three sentences on the board:

  1. Today I got an umbrella.
  2. Sandra was driving to the store.
  3. Ms. Michael loves pumpkin spice lattes.

My students are having trouble with be-pattern sentences: sentences that use forms of to be as the main verb. These sentences look like this: Jane is sad, Andrew is in the car, Cecilia was angry, Marvin was the winner. Often, my students confuse these types of sentences with sentences like #2, “Sandra was driving to the store,” calling “driving to the store” an adverbial, a phrase that describes the verb was. I explain the difference in words, gesturing with my hands, but I am met by complete silence or the sound of a student tossing a pen aside in frustration. So I must illustrate the difference visually

I turn back to the board, searching for where I wrote my sentences. It is not always easy to find my own writing on the huge white surface. I ask students for the main verb in the sentence, and some courageous voice says, “Driving!” I draw a squiggly line underneath it. Then I point to “was” and ask, “So what do we call this?” Another brave participant says, “A linking verb!” and a student who has done her reading says calmly, “An auxiliary.”

I illustrate the incorrect labeling of sentence parts by drawing brackets around the sentences. I draw huge swooping arrows to convey which parts modify, or describe, nouns, verbs, or phrases. I draw boxes around subjects and squishy brackets around direct objects. I break up the sentences and write them in passive voice, drawing arrows to show how the subject is no longer doing the action.

As I scribble my version of grammatical geometry, I literally face the highly visual nature of my own grammar knowledge and instruction. I understand grammar in a visual way. Like many of my peers, I was forced through countless hours of diagramming sentences—plotting sentences on long horizontal lines and relegating modifiers and less important phrases to the space beneath the lines.

As I teach these lessons, I cannot help but think, What if I had a totally blind student? What would I do? How can I translate my visual understanding of grammar and my sight-based editing techniques to a nonvisual thinker? I harbor secret dreams of taking a braille essay and cutting out every individual word, so that the words could be plotted and rearranged on a large surface. Perhaps I could teach diagramming sentences in the way that I was taught the basic templates for street crossings. A mobility instructor arranged bright yellow strips of velcro on a large black felt board, making T and plus-shaped intersections and asking me to navigate the “route” with a finger. I felt like I was in kindergarten again, but I enjoyed this tactile approach.

Though my current methods are proving effective, I continue to strive for a multi-sensory approach. I cannot love the sound of poetry and feel of editing without wanting students to experience these sensations for themselves. When I draw complex diagrams on the board, I am visually representing what I believe to be the anatomical structure of living language—a structure that could easily become three-dimensional with the right tools. My task now is to find these tools and implement them. I want to make students take writing into their own hands, to feel their words in their fingers and break and remake sentences at their natural junctures.

Blind Magician

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s extensive epic, The Lord of the Rings, much attention is given to the One Ring, a powerful weapon that changes the hearts and minds of men, dwarves, elves, and wizards. After encountering the Ring of Power, many characters discover a hunger for ability, a yearning to wear and wield this small gold weapon that can reshape the world. Though the Ring claims the spotlight throughout the three books, other magical implements exist – working for good and evil within the story. My favorite of these is a staff belonging to Gandalf, the tale’s wise and cantankerous wizard. The staff sometimes appears as a humble walking stick. At other times, it is the light in dark places. Gandalf rarely appears without the staff in hand – it banishes demons, conjures fireworks, and harnesses his magical abilities.

As an admirer of Tolkien’s work and a blind woman, I feel affinity for this magical accessory. My desire to visit Tolkien’s Middle-earth compels me to parallel the White Wizard’s weapon with my own commonplace talisman – a slender, foldable creation, wrapped in white reflective tape. For me, the white cane is a wizard’s staff in humble costume. It transports me to unforeseen environments, grants me helpful attentions from others, and allows me to change my world by presenting an active, capable picture of blindness.

In each tale of magic and self-discovery, a moment of epiphany and acceptance opens the world of an ordinary person to fantastical possibilities. Arthur sees and retrieves a sword from a stone; Frodo steps forward and offers to destroy the One Ring; Harry Potter opens the impressive letter from Hogwarts. In an ordinary world, a protagonist must decide to accept the magical token – a cloak of invisibility, a victorious sword, a lucky feather – before his or her life can become extraordinary.

As the heroines and heroes of fantasy accept wise council and magical heirlooms, the ordinary blind person accepts the cane. This acceptance is far from easy. When I was ten, I started training with the cane, but I was reluctant to use it in all environments. Afraid that the cane would set me apart, I convinced myself I could travel without it. I did not fully accept its power until I was fifteen. Confronted by necessity, I pulled the sword from the stone, put on the cloak, tucked the lucky feather in my pocket. I decided to embrace the magic that had been waiting for me for five years.

Like a mystic word that opens locked doors or answers riddles in invisible ink, the cane carries me to unknown realms. With a cane in hand, I feel confident enough to travel independently. The cane is a far-seeing crystal that extends my knowledge of the world – if only by 48 inches. It sweeps the ground before me, describing changes in my environment – steps, curbs, piles of leaves, signs, golf carts, boxes, and people whose existence I cannot visually detect. With cane in hand, I wield a prophetic power that prepares me for safe travel.

While some magical tools gain prestige by rendering their user invisible, the presence of the cane makes me more visible. The cane marks me out as an exception to the rule. In most groups, I alone sweep the white staff as I walk. This rare, bright implement of independence catches the eyes of passersby and works spontaneous miracles. Doors swing open, people step out of my way, friendly greetings fall on my ears.

A powerful symbol, the cane signifies many kinds of existence. Some see it as a crutch, a sign that indicates my weakness and vulnerability. To them, the cane is not a single staff but a heavy cross. I wield it like a biological scarlet letter – a signal of my deplorable and inferior life. Surely I, with this heavy cross in hand, cannot enjoy the pleasures that the observers enjoy.

For others, the cane is more than a powerful symbol: it is a symbol of power. They see the cane as a mark of my fierce drive to be independent, present, and successful; they recognize the work that prepared me for its use. They understand the hours of toil that fit a person for carrying a magical device. Perhaps they too have trained with their own symbols of power; they know the cost, the upkeep, the discipline needed to use such a staff as mine.

A third group of observers sees the cane as a sign of mystery. Unsure of its powers or uses, the courageous approach with questions. The cowardly stand aloof and gossip, their voices louder than they realize. With these people, the cane’s protective powers are amplified – it grants me a quick method for determining a person’s character. Even when the questions or comments are clumsy, those who bring them have a ready stock of goodwill for me. Those who would rather speculate from afar will not prove themselves worthy friends.

Gandalf’s staff marks him as a wizard, and my cane marks me as a blind woman. This mark allows me to carry the idea of blindness into new and exciting realms. Often, I must create the place for my talisman, because it is the first to appear in these frontiers. Onstage with my chorus, my magic staff changes shape, becoming slimmer and more compact. A long, slender pocket on the side of my chorus costume – the creation of our chorus seamstress – accommodates the compact ID cane I use during performances. The seamstress’s masterful addition keeps the cane from rolling around underneath the risers or getting misplaced backstage. This measure ensures that I won’t be parted from my talisman.

If a cane user cannot realize the power residing in the slender dimensions of a white cane, I recommend a healthy dose of whimsy and an understanding of metaphor. The everyday magic of canes is impossible to ignore. I first accepted the cane for its superficial powers, its compensations for my low vision, but, like the Ring that creates the Fellowship or the external magic that reveals internal strength, the cane continues to unfold new powers. To accept the cane, I had to accept myself. To embrace its power, I had to decide who I wanted to be. Now, my cane is a portable charm against diffidence and fear. I carry courage in its 48 inches.

My daily existence rarely offers me the experience of traveling with another cane user. I treasure the handful of times I’ve spent strolling beside someone whose familiar tapping and sweeping echoes or prefigures my own. Like a secret handshake or code word, the sound of another cane in use grants me a sense of kinship, a spiritual resonance. I rejoice that another carries the quiet power in the white staff, and I hope he or she uses it with care.

Blind Teacher II: The Saga Continues

Just before lunchtime, I receive an urgent call. The colleague, whose class I’ll be taking over in two weeks, needs me to start tomorrow. Tomorrow!? I’d planned to go in and observe tomorrow; I’d given the assigned poems a cursory reading. I wanted to sit in the back and be unobtrusive. I must dispense with these half-plans and begin new ones.  Luckily, I know where the classroom is; another colleague helped me find it when we were activating our electronic keys.

I begin the process of making the materials accessible. I send a series of emails to our department secretary, asking him to enlarge the poems for tomorrow’s class. In their current state, they’re dingy photocopies – not as grungy as some I’ve seen, but far too small to be legible. The photocopies were made in the usual manner of English professors: Open the thick book and mash it, pages down, onto the copier glass. The thicker the book, the more the professor resists copying each page to its own sheet of paper – so the text slips and curves into the graying vortex of the book’s spine and the edges of each page are muddy and dark.

To make these texts accessible, someone – usually our meticulous secretary – will have to apply OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to the existing PDFs. OCR will change the way that the computer interacts with the PDF. Instead of treating the PDF as a giant picture, OCR will allow the computer to recognize individual letters. Then using the text-to-speech function, my computer will read the texts aloud to me. This accounts for half of the ideal accessible text.

The other half of accessibility is visual; I must be able to visually interact with texts. Here is where I usually clasp my hands and stare woefully at the ceiling – Why oh why did I choose a profession that demands such intense interaction with texts? – but it can’t be helped. I know that any career I choose will present its own challenges.

Because I will thoroughly annotate each text and later read it silently or aloud under the variable lighting of a classroom, I require a larger font than I would use at home or in my office, beneath the cozy mood lighting I like best. This means that the dreadful 2-pages-per-sheet photocopies must be printed so that one book page covers one 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Occasionally people take it upon themselves to enforce “bigger is better,” enlarging my work to fit on 11×14 paper, but this measure begins a textual misadventure. Because my visual fields are limited, I work better with smaller areas, like the 13-inch screen on my laptop. To work with a larger screen up close, I would have to scan it more frequently. If I stand a few feet away, my central vision can accommodate larger areas.

My use of text in class is intimate and specific. I need a clear font with serifs, like Times New Roman or Cambria, and I need the text printed on a manageable area – standard letter-size paper. For longer texts, I need clear (enlarged) page numbers and a solid system for organization, whether it’s staples, binders, or tabs. Fortunately, for this class, I am dealing with two short packets of poems – each packet is about 15 pages long.

Because of the short notice, I worry that I will end up teaching without accessible copies of the poems. I am unfamiliar with the two poets, and I can only reason that I’ll ask students to read some of the text aloud. This will be my first time teaching these students, and I know the need to appear confident and capable.

Just hours before my class begins, my colleague and I briefly discuss the poems. She describes major themes, and I suggest possible directions for the class. Our secretary manages to enlarge them in the nick of time, and I shove the two packets in my bag on my way to another meeting.

All too soon, I stand before a low table at the front of my new classroom. Though I have folded my white cane, I have not removed my burgundy-framed sunglasses – the overhead lights are intense. My colleague introduces me briefly and asks the students to introduce themselves. My hands slide idly along the edge of the table. I feel my fingers start to tap the table, and I stop myself. I remember that, though I can only see parts of them – fuzzy heads, colorful blurs of clothing, dark lumps that must be schoolbags – they can all see me. I refuse to think about the loose bow on my shirt (is it straight?) or the shine that a warm classroom and two pairs of glasses add to my face. I smile, grateful that I remembered to apply lip balm.

Even before I’ve given the blind professor spiel, introductions flow smoothly. All the students speak clearly, and most speak cheerfully, giving me their name, major, and an interesting fact about themselves. Once my colleague has fielded a handful of questions about past assignments, she leaves me alone with the new class. I take a breath and begin The Talk.

I explain that I’ll be identifying them by their voices: “If I don’t hear you, you’re not here. So you’ll want to speak up often.” I say that I’ll be asking them whether the whiteboard is clean before I write on it. “It’s a pain to write over some previous math class,” I intone seriously. When I am greeted with silence, I grin, “That’s a joke. You can laugh.” They oblige – my first clue that they’ll be a fun and cooperative group. Lastly I ask, “Where’s the lightswitch in here?” A male student leaps to his feet, offering to turn off the lights for me, but I resist.  “No, I’ll do it – just direct me.” I explain that this is an informal test of their ability to communicate clearly and use direction-specific words. That gets a genuine laugh. Several voices chime in with succinct and accurate directions, and I flip off three of the four switches. Lastly, I add that they’ll need to submit their assignments in 18-point font. “And if your printer is running out of ink,” I pause dramatically. “Do us both a favor and print from the library. Faded ink is not fun to read.”

The students receive this information stoically, though they chuckle in all the right places. There are no questions or complaints; they seem to digest what I’ve said without a problem. I can’t believe I’m at the end of my “this is how your professor is different” talk already. Don’t I have more to say? DId I forget anything?

After my introduction, I lay out the plan for that day’s class – a length of 3.5 hours with three 10-minute breaks. As we move through collective and individual peer review, an informal lecture on poetics, and an interactive annotation exercise, we subtly amend the course plan. The students readily answer my questions about the course procedures and the day’s material. At one point, they can’t remember the criteria for individual peer review, so we invent a new procedure. During the final break, students chat about the feedback they’ve received. “We don’t get a lot,” they tell me. “We don’t get graded.”

“Do you know why?” I ask, knowing full well that my colleague has explained her methodology to them. But because it’s so new and foreign, they don’t remember it.

I offer them an explanation, and they indulge me, letting me pontificate for ten minutes on the value of the teacherless writing class. I scrawl Peter Elbow’s name on the board and explain, with more zeal than eloquence, the need to make writing a daily habit, the virtues of freewriting, and the growing confidence and command of words that accompanies such a pedagogy. I finish by saying that they’ll always read more willingly the material that interests them – but there is also value in learning to read texts that don’t interest them. Like the daily practice of musicians and athletes, writing takes rigor and commitment before you can expect to perform, to produce something of value.

I doubt my speech pleases them, but I can sense that they are happier knowing what philosophies structure this course. I am excited to watch them grow as writers, curious how much they will choose to develop. And I feel I’ve accomplished something for myself. I expected the class to be chaotic: I imagined myself stumbling through unfamiliar poems, trying to articulate someone else’s theories, while students unaccustomed to the quirks of my instruction gave stilted responses or none at all. I feel an intense gratitude for the cooperation that brought us all success – a powerful appreciation for my colleague’s guidance, my secretary’s resourcefulness with the myriad and confusing features of Adobe Acrobat, and my students’ willingness to help me settle into the new rhythm of our course. Yet again, I find myself amazed at how quickly challenges disappear when people decide to work together.

Closet Case

Tomorrow is a workday. Because I want an extra 15 minutes of sleep in the morning, I must select my professional attire tonight. I move to the closet and begin running my hand along the higher of the two clothing rods inside.

My narrow closet is arranged in a very particular way. From left to right, clothes are sorted by category. Formal dresses are on the left, followed by semi-formal dresses, career dresses, and sundresses. Next come blouses; button-down collared shirts are first, arranged by sleeve length. To the right of the work shirts come cardigans, which are sorted by sleeve length and color family. The cardigans are followed by dressier blouses – paisley, silky, lacy, ruffly – which are also arranged by sleeve length, but these move from sleeveless to long-sleeved. Last on the upper rod are heavy winter coats. On the bottom rod, lower to the ground, hang my dress pants, blazers, skirts, and spare hangers. These categories are all sorted by color, with the darkest on the left and the lightest on the right.

On the days when I teach, I gravitate toward the dress pants and button-down shirts. I am regularly mistaken for a student, so I strive for a certain formality in my teaching attire. I sweep my hair into a tight bun, choose blouses with stiff collars and cuffs, and try not to smile. However, I’m only tutoring tomorrow, so I can dress down a bit.

I select a plain black dress with short sleeves. Because the front of the dress has a dramatic V neckline, I choose a red camisole to wear underneath. (Camis are kept in a separate drawer, also arranged by color.) I will choose shoes and jewelry in the morning. I have to leave some decisions to the fancy of the moment. Picking out accessories will be a breeze, though, because my shoes and jewelry – even the flowers for my hair – are sorted by color and style.

I talk a lot about color, but I can’t actually identify it. I can distinguish many shades, so I’m sure I can see color. But I cannot spontaneously name it. If you hand me a red balloon, I will guess that it’s red – red has always been the easiest for me to see – but I don’t know for sure. Though I can’t identify colors by name, I continue to enjoy the same colors. I know I like reds, purples, and greens, and I especially like bold, bright colors. I detest pastels and what I call “sherbet colors” – those bright shades that emerge with summer fashions.

When I go shopping, my companion will draw my attention to an article of clothing. “Look at this,” Mom or a friend will say. “Isn’t it pretty?” I will take a look, decide whether I like the item, and ask, “What color is it?” Most of the time, my friends and family can agree on the color name for a particular object. When they disagree, I find myself in a fashion pickle. From friends and experience, I’ve learned which colors “go” together, so, when my informants disagree on the name of a particular shade of pink, I will have a hard time planning an outfit around it.

I’ve memorized the colors of most items in my closet. I know that the sleeveless silk blouse with the ruffles down the front is a pale yellow. I know that my favorite winter coat is deep purple. This memorization technique works especially well when I only have one of a particular item. When I have several shirts, dresses, or pants in the same style, remembering the color of each is challenging. It’s also challenging for me to remember the colors in multicolored items, which is why I tend to avoid multicolored jewelry. A few bright paisley blouses hang in my closet, so I learn whether these pair best with black or brown pants and wear silver jewelry with all of them.

For me, the most daunting feature of fashion is not choosing the attire – it’s asserting my preference. Often, people assume that my limited vision eliminates my ability to prefer and the validity of such preferences. Therefore, I should be treated like a life-size Barbie and dressed in the clothing that the sighted folks around me like best. Here, I have to gently and not-so-gently remind others that I don’t resemble Barbie in any way. Unless Barbie develops a love of cupcakes, loses a few inches in height, and changes her hair color, we aren’t going to be twins.

The fashion interference from others comes in the form of unsolicited advice and opinions. I’ll emerge, dressed and ready to go, and a friend or relative will say, “Hmm, I wouldn’t pair that cardigan with that skirt.” Strangers, and especially sales assistants, offer advice as well. On a summer’s day last year, I was trying on a new pair of boots – black leather boots with a 3-inch heel – and, as I walked around the small store to see how they fit, the saleswoman said, “They look great. But I wouldn’t pair them with that sundress.”

“Who would?” I immediately thought, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The dress was sleeveless, with three different shades of blue-green. To the woman, I said, “I wasn’t planning on it.” But of course, this didn’t sound like my insight. To her, I was simply parroting back the fashion wisdom she had chosen to impart.

Other times, people express their surprise that I can dress myself. A fellow student once exclaimed, “You’re blind? You dress so well!” inserting a foot in her mouth with the ease of an Olympic gymnast. The assumption here is that my blindness prohibits me from doing essential things: choosing clothing suitable for the occasion and actually putting it on. Because of my vision, I should not, in theory, be able to select clothing that matches. Clearly, someone had to dress me.

I make no false promises about my own abilities. I know that I cannot identify color and that stains are particularly hard for me to see. However, the line between the courteous assistance I need and the overbearing or patronizing advice I don’t need often blurs. People ignore this line when they start adjusting my crooked collar or brushing lint off my shirt without asking. Yes, it’s permissible for a mother to lick her finger and wipe something off your face, but it’s not acceptable for others to start adjusting me as though I’m a rumpled toddler ruining the holiday pictures.

Because I don’t like to introduce pet peeves without offering pleasing alternatives, I will say that some people help me through my wardrobe malfunctions with aplomb. Someone who says, “Um, you’ve got something on your right shoulder,” and then directs me to the spot is definitely doing the right thing in my book. Also acceptable are those who say, “Hey, your collar is crooked. Would you mind if I fixed it?” In most cases, I will happily let people assist me because they asked first. I am not an adult in denial, shouting, “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!” I know when I need the assistance. Neither am I a child who cannot say what I like and what I need. A person who verbalizes a request or offer of help – who asks before doing – is someone worth having around.

Simply put, I want credit for dressing myself. Perhaps it’s childish to demand this recognition, but, as I advance into my career, I want my competence to be acknowledged. I want others to know that I am well aware of the clothing, hairstyle, makeup, and accessories I wear. Yes, I do my own hair and makeup. No, I don’t have a lady’s maid to fasten all my hooks and buttons. My limited vision is not an open invitation for others to criticize my fashion sense.

For those who don’t understand the irritation caused by unwanted and constant criticism, I will just have to find something of theirs to pick on.

Deliberate Communication

Subtitle: A letter for Henry

I have decided to break out the Perkins braillewriter. Henry and I are going to exchange braille letters with the hope of improving my braille skills. As the novice, I must write the first of these missives. Henry says this will force me to remember my skills, but I suspect he wants me to write first, so he can chuckle over my garish braille spelling.

I’ve cleared a space for the machine on my desk and pulled out four sheets of thick braille paper. The paper measures 8.5 x 11 inches and already has holes punched along the left margin. I flip back the two levers on the brailler and slide the first sheet of paper between the long, thin rollers. I flip the levers forward, securing the paper. I begin to turn the knobs on either side of the machine, causing the paper to retract into place.

There’s nothing glamorous about a Perkins brailler. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense machine, built for endurance. Made of a dull, bluish-gray metal, it offers two rows of three keys, much like the Home Row on a print keyboard. Just before these rows sits the space bar. The “backspace” key sits in the “shift” position to the right of the two rows, and the “next line” key sits in the “shift” position on the left. To go to the next line, I press down on the small carriage and slide it to the left, across the front of the brailler. It dings just like a typewriter, but the click-click of the braille keys is lower, deeper, more sonorous.

The first row of three keys corresponds to dots 1, 2, and 3 of the braille cell. The second row of keys embosses dots 4, 5, and 6. Since the keys are arranged horizontally on the brailler and the dots are arranged vertically inside the braille cell, typing the correct letters requires a specific set of cerebral gymnastics.

With my paper in place, I begin my letter. October 9, 2012. I press dot 6 for a capital sign and dots 1, 3, and 5 for an o. Perfectthis is easier than I thought. Thinking of the word “October,” I type a t (dots 2, 3, 4, and 5)—and realize that I’ve already missed a letter. Immediately, I remember Henry’s stern commandment:

“You must think in braille, not in print.”

I realize that I have been thinking about the holistic look of the word October, not how it feels, letter-by-letter. I reach over the keys and feel the o, perfectly embossed, and the t, which shouldn’t be there. Carefully, I use the nail of my left index finger to scratch out the extraneous dots (2, 3, and 5). Then I press the “backspace” key and emboss a dot 1. Now, I have a c (dots 1 and 4), but, as I type the rest of the word, I remember another piece of our conversation:

Henry, grinning with the enjoyment of his superior knowledge, tells me not to bother with a braille eraser (a small wooden tool with a blunt tip for rubbing out extra dots). “Just press all 6 keys over your mistake,” he says calmly. “That will cross it out.” His tone becomes admonishing, “Don’t you dare try to scratch out your mistakes with a fingernail! I’ll know—I’ll be able to feel that for sure!”

Well, I am certainly not going to cross out a word on the very first line of my letter! I’ll leave the fingernail marks in there, just to see if he’s paying attention.

I continue with the letter, trying to imagine each word in braille before I type it. My fingers hesitate over the two rows, the balls of my fingers nestling into the indentations on each key. I feel like a four-year-old at the piano, excited and reticent all at once. As I move into the first paragraph, I am amazed at the effort needed to press each key. My fingers start to ache, and I’ve only typed three sentences!

However, the brailler offers certain aesthetic compensations. Each time I complete a line, I am rewarded by the musical ding of the brailler bell—which adds a strange spatial awareness to my epistolary efforts. I find myself choosing different words because I know their size and contractions. I choose shorter words when I’m nearing the end of the line. The hesitation and deliberation over each letter forces me to meditate on the words I emboss. When my thinking becomes too fast, I slip back into print and make careless mistakes. I type an sh (dots 1, 4, and 6) instead of an -ing (dots 3, 4, and 6). I must think word by word—breaking each word into phonemes, or sound-components.

In the middle of the second paragraph, I realize that I am typing much more quickly. Contractions I learned years ago are dancing into my conscious mind; I easily recall the shorthand for the, have, this, and just. The click of the brailler keys synchronizes with the rhythm of my thoughts, and the melodious ding at the end of each line keeps me aware of my place on the page. My mind fills with the notions of space and texture, and I occasionally check my progress with the index finger of my right hand.

At the bottom of the first page, I decide to stop. My hesitant thoughts have given way to cramped fingers. I feel a sense of relief, amazed that the braille seems so familiar after only a page of embossing.

I cannot ignore the contrast between my slow, deliberate embossing and the rapid, intuitive process of typing on my familiar laptop keyboard. Something is blossoming in my consciousness: an awareness of the effects of the medium on the process of writing. It is not that the brailler makes me think more slowly or choose different words; using the brailler, exerting more physical effort when I write, changes the shape of my thoughts.

Now, I want to attempt a writing task using different media—pen, computer, brailler, and even slate and stylus (the pen and paper method for braille) to see how each would change the timbre of my writing.

Clean Up Your Act: Household Chores and Low Vision

If you were to ask my mother to name one of the happiest days of her life so far, she might tell you, “The day I got married,” “The day my son got married,” or maybe, “The day my daughter got married.” (In my fantasies, she smiles brightly, dabs at her eyes, and replies, “The day you were born.” And then she leans in and whispers, “You’re my favorite. Don’t tell the others.”)

While all of these answers are appealing and each contains a profound amount of truth, I suspect she might be fibbing just a little.

I suspect that she might acknowledge as a contender the day she attended a seminar on teaching independent living skills to the blind. She came home, armed with a handful of new ideas and a sturdy container of Puffy Paint and set to work making all the household appliances accessible to me. And I waved a sad goodbye to my chore-free childhood.

For those of you unacquainted with the magic of Puffy Paint, it is a thick paint that dries and leaves a three-dimensional, tactile (puffy) impression. It is often used to decorate T-shirts, tote bags, and other frivolous items, unrelated to housework.

But Mom employed the Puffy Paint in all sorts of unwelcome places – squirting little dots around the dials of the washer and dryer, marking the buttons on the dishwasher, and labeling the gradations on the oven knobs. And as if that wasn’t enough, she then proceeded to teach me how to use each of these devices, all the while saying cheerily, “Just think, I am teaching you independent living skills! People pay for this kind of instruction! Later, when you’re living on your own, you’ll be glad you had a dedicated mom who taught you all this!”

Once I had memorized every dial in the house and learned the ins and outs of washing laundry or dishes, we moved on to vacuuming. Here I must confess, I have NEVER liked the vacuum. We have always had an uneasy relationship, because the  vacuum produces a hideous, loud whine that I do not enjoy. But I had to get over this initial distaste and learn that vacuuming, just like most of the other chores, was something that did not require good vision. Mom taught me that the art to vacuuming was to cover the floor in a systematic pattern. Once she threatened to pour baby powder over an entire carpet to drive the skill home in a visual way, but we never had to employ that extreme tactic. I just started at a corner of the room and continued.

The principle of using a pattern rather than depending on one’s eyes carried over to dusting, mopping, and even scrubbing a toilet. The motion was what mattered; once you learned how to scrub a surface, it didn’t matter that you couldn’t see it.

This is not to say that I received an unfair share of chores, merely that I was taught to “do my part.” In a house with 6 people (2 parents and 4 children), we all had our assigned tasks. There was only one chore from which I was readily exempted.

Six people of varying ages and and at varying stages of life meant a lot of socks. A lot. Once clean, socks of all sizes, colors, and fabrics – argyle, silk, dress socks, grayish white socks with the occasional hole – all ended up in The Sock Basket, a worn out laundry basket that sat in a back corner of the house. No one ever wanted the duty of trying to match all those socks. This was such a loathsome chore that Mom assigned it as punishment if one of us got in trouble!

I don’t know what possessed me, but one day I volunteered to match socks. Maybe it was the mellow atmosphere of the room or the hours of dreamy contemplation the chore afforded. Maybe it was the tactile joy of handling all the different fabrics, freshly laundered and smelling like detergent. Somehow, the chore appealed to me, and Mom readily sent me off to match socks. So I sat for hours by the bin, happily pairing socks together.

It was not discovered until much later that I had no actual criteria for helping socks find their mates. If a pair felt good together, they went together. I believed in encouraging all sock alliances – argyle and silk, fuzzy and dressy, blue and black. All socks were created equal in my expert young opinion.

When this discovery was made, I finally received the satisfaction of being banned from a household duty.