Temple Grandin Live at FSCJ!

Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series:  a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!

Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.

Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!

Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.

Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her  priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.

Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.

Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.

Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work.  She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.

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October Interviews: Krista from FSCJ

Krista Waters, age 29, is a DeafBlind Human Services major at Florida State College at Jacksonville. She has found her passion working with other disabled people, and she currently holds two positions in disability services organizations. She enjoys discussing assistive technology, self-advocacy, and accommodations for disabled students and employees. She agreed to talk with me about her academic experiences.

Why did you choose to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville?

I chose this institution because the disability services are incredible. The staff really embraces the students they are in charge of educating.

What is the most significant access issue you’ve had in college? How was it resolved? Was this solution ideal?

I would say the most difficult access question has been access to materials in a timely manner. Because I am visually impaired as well as hearing impaired, things can take a while. I receive syllabi in advance, handouts in advance if available. However, computer software still leaves a lot to be desired. Its not always accessible for people who use screenreading programs like JAWS. I’m flexible though. I’ve realized when I’m fighting for accessibility for myself, it’s not always about me in the long run. It’s about my fellow students and peers as well.

If you could implement training for faculty or staff, what skills or concepts would you emphasize?

I would emphasize that all students are different. Just because you have had one blind student does not mean the second or third blind student will require the same things. Your student comes first, then the disability.

How do you judge whether a professor will be a good fit for you? What clues in the syllabus or in their personal communications let you know that they’re willing to collaborate with disabled students?

Whether a professor is a good match for working with our college’s disabled population is based on a number of well-defined factors. First of all, a lot is based on the student’s first meeting with the professor in question. Does the student email and ask for a meeting (something that is highly recommended)? Does the professor respond in a timely manner? Does the professor seem interested and open to your request for a meeting? Are you clear about your disabilities? Does the professor ask good questions related to you being in this class and how to make the environment as conducive as possible?

What’s the most satisfying project you’ve completed during college? Why do you feel this way about it?

The most satisfying project I’ve performed in college is my Cold War presentation in my American History class. I’m a quiet person by nature, especially in the classroom environment. I have difficulty speaking up in the classroom, and the professor in question took it upon himself to ensure I became comfortable. He did not ignore me; instead he engaged me. I did my presentation complete with PowerPoint.

What was the most challenging college course you’ve ever taken? Why was it so challenging?

I think the most challenging class I’ve taken thus far is my Integrating Educational Technology class. This class was all lab-based and completely 100% visual. As a visually impaired person, I like to be as independent as I can, and this class challenged my sanity.

What advice would you give to disabled students entering college for the first time?

I would say talk to other college students who have disabilities. Know what your rights are and understand the terminology related to disability accommodations. Try first and if you do not get anywhere, then ask for help. Talk to your professors: open and honest communication.