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.

Appearing at SAMLA 88!

Literary scholars, mark your calendars for SAMLA 88! The South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s annual conference is coming to Jacksonville in November—with the theme of Utopia/Dystopia: Whose Paradise Is It?

And guess what?

They accepted my workshop proposal! Michele and I will be presenting a fabulous workshop you won’t want to miss! Don’t believe me? Check out our proposal below:

Insensible Paradise, Invisible Nightmare: Complicating Embodiment in the 21st Century Classroom

In this workshop, Emily K. Michael and Michele Boyette map the conflicts between literary and literal bodies, exploring the paradoxes and pleasures of disclosure. The safe distance of metaphor and the legality of red tape have contrived a minefield for academics—both disabled and nondisabled. We disabled faculty hardly expect nondisabled colleagues to be conversant with the latest activism, yet we seek the most productive and empathetic environment for our disabled students. This nebulous landscape harbors a failure of imagination; our colleagues and students have no guide beyond the literature they discuss.

Most academic encounters with disability occur in print or onscreen. Professors and students fathom disability through assigned course materials often created outside the disability community. When we experience disability as chiefly secondhand, we learn to view disability as a frame for analysis and interpretation, rather than a commonplace human condition. Disabled students and faculty become impromptu teachers regardless of their expertise or interest in teaching.

Once on campus, disabled students disclose their disability and learn to negotiate accommodations. However, the red tape that protects a student’s privacy can also foster silence and estrangement. The disabled instructor’s disclosure is equally fraught with complications. She travels in a department that regularly employs problematic representations of the disabled body.

Emily K. Michael, a blind adjunct instructor at the University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville, creates productive dialogue with disabled students and redesigns course language to invite disability into the classroom. She helps faculty to examine their syllabi, course texts, and assignments to produce an empathetic, three-dimensional understanding of embodiment.

Michele Boyette, instructional coordinator at the UNF Writing Center, speaks from her position as a nondisabled instructor who encounters the invisible and visible disabilities of students and staff. She complicates the uneven responsibility of disclosure by highlighting the impracticality of red tape in appointment-based tutoring sessions.

Together we open a space where faculty are unafraid to examine disability off the page. We target faculty who have found little occasion to research disability on their own. We offer practical strategies for widening academic imagination to welcome the disabled student or colleague. This workshop is an informal and informative playground for the tabooed bodies and minds appropriated by our academic environments.

Divining the Catalyst: A Response to the Writing of Oliver Sacks

I have always been a front-row student. Drawn to the first row of desks or tables by temperament and visual disability, I preferred to be as close to the teacher—and presumably the action—as possible. I never questioned this self-placement: to me, the front row was a reverential space, sanctified by scholarship and enthusiasm.

Plus, the first row of desks was always easiest for me to find. Before I started traveling with a guide dog, I’d use my white cane to locate an empty seat. I hated threading through crowded aisles scattered with students’ bags. I could see the outline of the first row of desks—usually unoccupied—and claim my place without tangling my cane in the straps of someone’s lumpy Jansport backpack.

On the third day of my Honors Chemistry class, I was a curious sophomore, sitting in the first seat of the second line of desks nearest the door. Slightly offset from the teacher’s large desk on its elevated platform, my seat offered a clear view of the class’s main attraction: the magic tricks performed by our teacher. For the first two days, she had confined herself to modest tricks—minor explosions and colored flames. She had even made water disappear with the use of three Solo cups and the powder from inside a disposable diaper. So she met our cries for more tricks with a quiet smile and a phrase that complicated my front-row-philia: “All right, I will bring out the shatter shield.”

Two years later, the same teacher tried to begin our AP Chemistry class with more conventional housekeeping—going through the syllabus and explaining her policies. But we protested; most of us remembered the earlier displays of magic and were excited to see the more advanced versions. As she explained how each trick worked, she continually posed the question, “Is magic chemistry, or is chemistry magic?”

There were many things I loved about those chemistry classes—from the newspaper-y smell of our carbon lab notebooks to the balancing of redox reactions and the intense calculations of dimensional analysis. Perhaps because I was so enthusiastic about the academic side of the course, I found the laboratory experience to be painful and frustrating. I say this because I never experienced parallel frustrations in my biology courses.

Though my instructor showed me the equipment with painstaking care, many of our experiments were inaccessible to me. I learned to distinguish round-bottomed flasks from erlenmeyer flasks and flat-bottomed flasks. I learned to identify the parts of a Bunsen burner, the pipettes, and the clamps. But I could not read the measurement lines on the flasks to report a precise meniscus. I could not identify the colors of the various flames during the flame test lab. And I had to rely on my partner’s goodwill during the tie-dye lab as I squirted purple and red coloring onto my scrunched and bundled T-shirt. (Incidentally, the tie-dye shirt came out rather well.)

So I took notes while my lab partner carried out the kinesthetic tasks. And perhaps because my experience of chemistry was chiefly literary, I was primed to value the first chemistry memoir I read.

For extra credit, my teacher invited us to report on Oliver Sacks’s book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. The book detailed Sacks’s intense love of chemistry, his fascination with the periodic table, his forays into the lab, and his family’s relationship with science. But Uncle Tungsten also offered something new to my 16-year-old self (in love with Jane Austen and James Joyce). It offered a glimpse into what nonfiction beyond the textbook could be—an organic wandering through memory in which discoveries are unbound by time. I realized that revelation was nonlinear, that truth didn’t always march so neatly across the page.

Unlike our conventional and unappealing course texts—and the labs that accompanied them—Sacks’s memoir made room for the student I was. I could understand and revel in his experience without feeling like an inadequate scientist. In the lab, I squinted at measurement lines on graduated cylinders, always conscious that such visual data was beyond my grasp. But in the pages of the memoir—where phenomena were rendered accessible through text—I could calculate, realize, conclude. I could bring all I had learned into one powerful, imaginative space.

Though I’ve read several of Sacks’s articles and books, I resonate most with his writings on chemistry and music. I adored Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, for its discussion of art and science, mystery and measurement.

These two books, more than Sacks’s other work, helped me come to terms with what felt like insurmountable exclusion from the scientific world. As a high school student, I was just beginning to understand disability rights: I didn’t know what I was allowed to ask for and what I was expected to put up with. Now I know several blind people pursuing careers in the sciences. Lab equipment can be adapted, colors identified. But when I was taking these courses, that terrain seemed so daunting. And in the same way that I coped with the difficulty of sightreading piano music, I did what I knew would work: I turned to writing.

In July, Dr. Sacks published a piece in The New York Times called “My Periodic Table”; in this piece, he explored the elements that made his life worthwhile—literal chemical elements and different human experiences, like a night filled with stars. Sacks wrote:

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s           words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

When I imagine my own night filled with stars, I realize that most of the lights have been literary—voices outside of time that I return to again and again. It is easier to be in love with the voices that are already gone—Austen, Joyce, Woolf, and most recently, Seamus Heaney. It is more heartbreaking to feel a voice moving out of our finite, knowable space, because it seems that all their brilliance will cross over, become unfathomable. There is something so necessary and vital in the pieces of life we can touch and smell, like the rough carbon pages of lab notebooks.

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.

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.