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.

Three Little Things

If you are a student in my freshman composition class, you will be asked to analyze the title of any given reading on the syllabus. I tell my students, “Titles mean a lot; writers choose them deliberately.” I don’t say this because I’ve read extensive theory validating this claim. I say it because I, as a writer, have agonized over almost every title I’ve  created.

I tell my students that the title of a piece can act as a calling card, shaping a reader’s expectations before the text “begins”—of course, the text “begins” with the title. But often, titles are ignored, considered the product of that “Oh crap, I forgot to put a title on this thing” moment. Gently, I remind my students that their writing habits may not align perfectly with the habits of professional, passionate writers. It’s not that my students can’t be professional or passionate writers—or even that they don’t like writing—it’s that, so far, they aren’t as obsessed with the written word. Writers are on fire with love of language, and they meticulously arrange and re-arrange their words, which feel more like children, until they can claim proximity to perfection.

Certainly, a title can be the work of afterthought or hasty summation; it can be the suggestion of an overzealous editor or inspirational friend. It can be a preview of the text itself, or it can stubbornly refuse to conform to our confining idea of what a title should be. A title can be a maverick and refuse to relate to the impending text; it can stand apart, make no sense, be inscrutable. But it must be there.

Maybe by this point, you have forgotten what my title is. Or perhaps you’re the meticulous type who keeps scrolling up to remind yourself. “Three Little Things,” you quietly recite. You hope that this recitation will act as a unifying mantra that helps you internalize and understand the title’s significance.

Don’t worry, there is no magic here. I will place the three small things in plain sight; they are a hand, an open door, and an email.

The first, a hand, fits neatly over mine. During captivating conversations, it comes to rest warmly on top of mine, emphasizing the speaker’s words. With quiet, modest rhythm, the hand pats mine, conferring reassurance. Sometimes it lingers, covering mine for the space of four seconds; other times, it presses quickly and lifts away, exposing the back of my hand to an abrupt rush of cool air. The gesture suggests benevolence, intimacy, inclusion. I imagine that its warmth mirrors the sensation of making eye contact, a phenomenon I have never experienced. The hand willing to touch mine conveys the presence and attention of my companion. In the palm warmly covering my own, I read sincerity and a reaching-out; someone is willing to consider the nonvisual perspective. The gesture answers the question, “How can I let her know that I am here—that I am listening?”

I find the second object, an open door, waiting for me when I walk downstairs. As I approach the coffee shop, I feel the open door first. Long before I can see it, I sense air rushing through the large open space. As I approach, I can see straight into the uncrowded  coffee shop, my view is not obstructed by the black bars that cross the glass-fronted door. The absence of these bars affirms my theory that the door is open. I imagine that the door is propped ajar with some kind of doorstop; it does not move and no one exits or enters. I cannot confirm this because a doorstop is too small for me to see.  I step closer to the door and, following a flash of color, turn my head to the right. I can see a person holding the door for me. He wears a green or yellow shirt; it contrasts with the black of the doorframe. I thank him—and realize that he has been holding the door this whole time, waiting for me to approach.

The third object, an email, appears in my inbox a week after a quick conversation with a previously-unknown colleague. Before our chat, I had only heard of him by reputation. He talks to me about being a first-semester instructor, assures me that I will quickly learn the policies that best suit me, and promises to send me his syllabus. He reminisces about his early semesters and assures me that all instructors go through the bumpy phase I currently occupy. He promises to email me, and I give him one of my snazzy business cards (purple with white lettering). A week after our chat, I check my mail and find his message. I’ve customized the accessibility settings on my computer to enlarge most fonts to a comfortable size (18 or so) and, with my 10x magnification, most emails are easy to read. Unless a sender has deliberately chosen a different font and size, my email program will change their text to meet my specifications.

When I open his message, I am greeted by large, bold sans serif letters. His font must be size 26 or more; it is much larger than my default setting. Because my computer does not default to larger sizes, I know that this text signifies a deliberate choice, a nod to my difficulties with small text.

My three objects come from three meaningful interactions: one with a friend of four years, one with a new acquaintance, and the last with a complete stranger. In each situation, someone extended to me an incredible gift, a palpable consideration for my perspective. In each case, the person stepped outside her or his own senses and thought about my experience of the situation. I doubt whether each participant can estimate the sense of value I find in these three gestures.