So, three months is better than three years. We’re making progress. Today, I come to you with a transcript of the disability in teaching podcast I did back in February. It turns out that teaching two classes and dissertating was a little much for me and my anxiety issues, so this got back-burnered for a while. But at long last, for the sake of accessibility and obscuring my identity a little, I have a transcript done for you all to read.
You have a long post ahead, so please be patient, and read through if you have the time. My host and I are very chatty, but there are some good moments in there. And you know that if I, the under-confidence queen, think there’s some good stuff in there, it might actually be true.
Some technical notes before we begin: First, and foremost, a huge, huge thanks to Sarah Blake La’Rose, who did the transcription for this. She fit me into her super busy spring, and did a fantastic job. This would not have happened without her. I did some fiddling around with the final product for reasons unrelated to her transcription, so if there are any errors, they are mine, not hers. And if the flow of something doesn’t seem to connect, that is also not her fault, that is my fault for being bad at public speaking. You don’t realize how unorganized your thoughts are until you see them written down on paper.
Anyway, I think that’s all the technical stuff. I hope you can all follow this, and that you enjoy it, and share it around. I may still be willing to share the link to the audio in the future, because I think it sounds better in person, but we’ll see. For now, this transcript does a great job of communicating the essential points, and I hope folks will find it informative. So without further delay… “There Will be no visual aids: Disability and the classroom”!
N [host]: Hello. Today, we’re talking about disability in the classroom. So, Kat, you’re blind.
Kat [me]: [laughing] That’s accurate.
N: So, what I thought we might start with is the history of your experience with disability. If you want to talk about what it was like growing up blind, your childhood, things like that. Give us some context.
K: Yes, I can do that. I was born with a birth defect in my eyes called Peter’s anomaly. The short explanation of that is that it’s a cornea defect. I won’t get into the gritty details, because corneas are gross. But what it meant for me was that from the ages of one to four, I had four to five different transplants.
N: That sounds terrible.
K: [laughs] It kind of was. Lots of time in and out of hospitals. A lot of that was trying to repeatedly replace the corneas; this was back in the late 80s and early 90s, so all the immunosuppressant drugs were not where they are now, so the corneas were rejected.
I grew up with partial vision … never enough to be able to drive. I couldn’t, without a lot of magnification, read print books, so I grew up using braille and other technologies. Various complications come along with getting your eyes operated on, so I had lots of small surgeries related to that. I had a bout with childhood glaucoma, which was super fun, though I don’t remember it well, and which eventually went away. When I was 12, I woke up and I had started hemorrhaging inside my eye. It was like waking up looking through a piece of red Saran wrap.
N: So, not exactly rose-colored glasses.
K: Nope, not quite. Not the right kind of glasses, for sure. They weren’t initially sure what was going on, but eventually did another transplant. I had a little better vision for a while after that, but I had a lot of physical trauma in the eye, since they’re not exactly the sturdiest of organs.
N: As someone who’s stabbed herself in the eye with several makeup tools, I concur.
K: Exactly. Don’t recommend. Anyway, . Over the next three years I lost the rest of my vision very slowly.
N: Which is maybe a little bit of a blessing, over the alternative of losing it overnight?
K: Oh, for me, absolutely. I feel very fortunate in that. I ended up losing it in the least intrusive way possible, even though there’s no good way to do it. It went so slowly and so gradually that I never really knew until someone walked in the room and said, “Are you going to turn the light on?” I didn’t realize it wasn’t on. My bad.
N: So, obviously this podcast is focused around teaching, so I wanted to get a sense of your experiences on the other side. As a student, did you find that your experiences were extremely difficult because teachers were unable to accommodate? Could you talk about that?
K: It was a pretty different story between grade school and college. In grade school there was actually a pretty good setup. My district had people who were called vision teachers (there is probably a more formal name for them, I don’t know). I had someone assigned to me who would come in and work with me during my classes sometimes. When I was little, they taught me braille, navigational skills, the different technologies that I would need to learn how to use. When I was in high school, I had a super awesome and forward-looking instructor who was very aggressive about teaching me computer skills, because it is a little bit harder to intuitively learn a computer when you’re using assistive technology. This was the 90s and Things were still kind of developing. So I was very fortunate that I had someone looking ahead and giving me the skills that ended up being so helpful in college.
In high school, all my materials were provided for me, every worksheet was Brailled, all my textbooks were sent out for, and things like that. The district had a structure set up, and Braille transcription available.
In college that became more of my job. In college you don’t have a district with a transcription center. We did have a disability services center, and they were amazing. If I had a textbook that I needed, I would buy the textbook and then send it to them, and they would digitize it for me. If that wasn’t available, for some reason, like me procrastinating on giving them the textbook, I also had to be able to do that for myself with a scanner and my computer, which is slow, and not very pleasant. But it gets it done. The disability services would take care of the bigger stuff, and also the testing materials that I was not allowed to have ahead of time. I had to make sure that I was on time. No one was asking, “Did you get your textbooks? Did you schedule your tests?” This was hard for me, since I’m kind of a disaster, and I was taking 18 to 22 credits every semester. I am not organized; this was a struggle. But it was what I had to do.
Now that I have my own students who need accommodations, it has made me understand what they’re dealing with in a sense of coordinating their lives through another agency. So that has been a blessing that I didn’t know would come through this.
N: Absolutely. Now, jumping ahead, how long have you been teaching at this point?
K: I was a teaching assistant during undergrad for various classes from about 2008 to 2011. I’ve been the instructor of record in classes since 2012, first in northern Minnesota, and then here.
N: So you’re kind of a veteran now, we could say.
K: Ha, yes, something like that.
N: When you were a TA, did your professors work with you to make your responsibilities more doable? Or did you have extra responsibilities to deal with like you did when you were a student?
K: The instructors that I worked with were, by and large, instructors that I had already had as a student, and who I had built previous relationships and friendships with. So they let me design stuff to make it easier for me. I implemented an online office hours system for one of my professors, so that was really useful. I was a TA for a linguistics class once, and that was really tricky because they do a lot of hand drawings and sentence diagrams. That really complicated things. But we figured it out. The benefit of all of this, really, was that I learned how I needed to function as an instructor, to make it accessible for myself.
N: Right. I guess that’s why they make us do the teaching assistant thing first, to get through some of those practice runs. You’ve been teaching here for a while. I know you’ve taught literature and composition, and it seems like I’m always hearing about the cool ideas you have for your students. Tell us about your experiences teaching at this university, if you’ve seen a difference between teaching literature and composition, or anything else you want to talk about from your time here.
K: Okay. Well, in trying to keep it on the disability angle, since that’s our focus today, The big thing that has been really great here is the integration of GoogleDrive into our everyday lives. That is how I function. Without Drive I’m useless. When I was teaching in Minnesota, I had students email me assignments. It turned my inbox into an un-navigatable hellscape. Getting here, realizing that not only did students have access to GoogleDrive, but they had also been taught how to use it, being able to make everyone make their folders and have a place to turn things in, let me have the kind of organization the not being able to keep a file cabinet full of printouts did. Not necessarily a specific teaching experience, but it has been a huge part of my life as an instructor here. It keeps my life under control; I can sometimes even manage my inbox now. Now all my Email problems come from what the university does to us here.
Looking back on the teaching-specific experiences I’ve had here, students are very respectful. I’ve never had a student challenge me on the blind thing. I guarantee they get away with texting when they normally wouldn’t, because I can’t see what they’re doing.
N: Well, let me tell you, they do that even when you can definitely see them.
K: Right?! I feel like as a teacher with a disability, I have to give my students a lot more of … “You’re a grown up, it’s your responsibility. If you want to be on Facebook the whole time, I won’t be able to catch you.. If you’re texting the whole time, I’ll never know. But don’t come crying to me in April when everything’s falling apart and you’ve missed everything I’ve said.” My general policy is if your phone makes noise, and actually interrupts me, I will humiliate you. I don’t want to go over and take it, and I can’t just make eye contact with them. I will just stop talking for a good 15 to 20 seconds and look at them and then move on. That seems to do the trick.
N: I also find it works well to just throw things at them. I’ve been known to throw pens… I have terrible aim, so I just launch something into the room.
K: Yeah, I tried to just throw candy at them once, and that is not something I recommend when you can’t see them. I pinged someone in the forehead on the first time round, and decided that maybe throwing things was not my best plan.
N: Maybe a good call. On that note, I won’t call them negative experiences, but What are some of your most teachable moments? I remember once, sitting in my cubicle next to yours, overhearing a student conference. The conference was great, everything seemed normal, and the student then ended it by praising you for being ‘surprisingly adept at your job’, which I don’t think is something he would have said to an instructor without a disability. How do you handle moments like that? How do they make you feel?
K: It’s one of the most aggravating parts of teaching, comments that undermine me like that… I can deal with students being confused about disability. I can deal with students asking questions. I can’t deal with the off-putting praise for just existing. The term for it that people may or may not have heard is inspiration porn. It’s like, “Oh my God, you function!” It’s meant with the best of intentions, and I know that. It’s usually people who haven’t been exposed to people with disabilities, or have been exposed to them in a very specific circumstance. It means that they think they’re doing a good thing: “You’re out! You’re doing it! Some people are not out and are not doing it.” Which is absolutely true. The unemployment rate in the blind community is horrific. But how I hear it is, “Good job! You got out of bed, put on pants, and you’re paying your bills!”
N: And for someone like you, who is very skilled at your job, and who works very hard, I imagine that those parts of your work get overlooked, or don’t get acknowledged the way they should when people make comments like that.
K: It’s true. And I mean, I have many teaching flaws, and I would so much rather my students talk about all the things they don’t like about me than to be like, “She’s a good teacher for a blind teacher,” which I’ve gotten in an email, or “In spite of her being blind she’s really good,” or “She’s so inspiring.”
N: Ah, inspiring. I’m sure that’s a word that’s become…
K: Nauseating? Yes. In fact just the other day, I was walking down the street, and I sort of turned off the path a little bit, and I corrected it. I hadn’t had any coffee yet, you know how it goes. This woman very nicely said, “You use that cane so well! I’m so impressed with you!” For walking. What do you even say to that? “Thanks? I do it literally every day?”
The tough thing about these inspiration porn moments is that, for human decency’s sake, and because I don’t like conflict, I have to thank people for them, because that’s societally polite. I know a lot of blind folks have chosen to be more outspoken on this topic, and that’s fine. I just don’t like conflict. I don’t like to start things,. That’s who I am. I’m Minnesotan. We don’t do that. We passive aggressively complain about strangers on podcasts instead. So I have to thank them for these compliments, which is difficult, not just because I’m upset (which I usually am) but because it takes away the teachable moment.
N: And I’m guessing most people don’t even know what they could get out of a moment like that, aside from “Oh, blind people go about their daily lives successfully.” They don’t realize they could get more out of that encounter than they’re allowing themselves.
K: Yes. And I would like that. I want people to understand that the fact that I’m at work is a big deal because I’m a disaster in the mornings and I’m up late, can’t function without caffeine, and didn’t give myself enough time to make coffee. Or it’s impressive that I’m here because I didn’t do my laundry and couldn’t find clothes, and then I did and now I’m here and good for me.
N: [laughing] That’s the story of my life.
K: I think that’s every graduate student. And that’s just it. It’s not impressive that I’m here because I can’t see, it’s because of everything else. There are things in my life that are extra challenging because of the vision problems. And I’ll take the compliments sometimes; yes, being blind makes this hard, and thanks for acknowledging. But many things are not blindness-related. My challenges are often not blindness-related at all. Being an introvert with generalized anxiety makes my teaching, and life, a lot more difficult than my blindness does.
N: This is something I’m really glad you’re bringing up; you and I have had conversations before about how we need to increase graduate student awareness about mental health, and how we need to start conversations about mental wellness and disability, especially since so many graduate students deal with depression, anxiety, etc.You mentioned having generalized anxiety. In your experience, do you find that it is more acceptable to other people for you to talk about your physical disability than to talk about your invisible disabilities?
K: I wouldn’t say accepted, but expected. People see me as a blind instructor, as a blind student. They expect that my biggest problems come from the fact that I can’t see. They are surprised and slightly puzzled that the anxiety, or even just the introvertedness, causes a lot more difficulties in a very social atmosphere like academia, than blindness does. This may not be true for everyone. That’s a disclaimer that I should have made earlier in this podcast. Blind people are all individual people. Grad students are all individual people. My experience is my experience alone. That disclaimer always needs to be there when we talk about disability, because we tend to all lump people together. I don’t want to invalidate anyone else’s experiences.
But anyway, people make the assumption that blindness is my biggest challenge. It is absolutely not. If I was STEM, this might be different. But I read books and I write papers. Probably 75 percent of what I do is pretty easy to manage, at least from a technical standpoint. The amount of time it takes me to get to materials is annoying, but it’s not an impediment to my goals. The fact that I have to network to get jobs, when I have massive social anxiety, gets in my way a lot more. Walking around campus is a challenge, not because of walking with a cane, but because I’m very anxious and when I feel like someone’s staring at me or watching what I’m trying to do, I freeze up and am unable to function. I feel like that’s a relatively common problem for a lot of people. People are much more comfortable with the idea that my struggles are all blindness-related. They’re reaching for what’s comfortable, for what they think they’ve been trained to deal with. We, as a society, are not trained well to handle mental health issues, or invisible disabilities. So it’s a lot harder for most people.
N: That totally makes sense. I want to look at a slightly different teaching topic, now. In our course setup, we have a lot of different work we have to do, like multimodal projects. How do you approach your courses with regard to these?
K: I have taken control of those a bit, since there are some things I can’t evaluate. Part of working with a disability is, “I have no limitations except, oh wait, I do.” So I have to make the assignments something I’m comfortable with. I’m not comfortable trying to grade a video. They can describe for me what they’re trying to do. But I’m not comfortable evaluating that for a grade. So for my classes, I’ve forced their assignments into podcasts, because a podcast I’m comfortable evaluating. So I give my students a little less leeway in what they do. Because they don’t know why I’m doing it that way, they tend to respond well to being strong-armed and manipulated. That’s part of my strategy: just never let them know how I’m messing with them. They seem to take it pretty well. My idea is to fit within the system that we have and adapt it to my needs. I don’t want to do anything drastically differently just because of a disability, because I don’t want to be “the blind teacher.” I and a couple of others in the department are currently involved in running a service-learning section of the course, and I would much rather be remembered for helping develop that, instead of just as the blind instructor. That’s much more meaningful, and helpful, to me.
N: It seems like you are developing a lot of career skills for yourself that can be mapped across other jobs, which is something all graduate students should maybe be thinking about. Can you comment on that?
K: Absolutely. That’s what they want us to be doing in graduate school, learning new skills. And, taking this question in a slightly different direction than you intended, sorry, there are skills that aren’t related to academia that I hope my students will have after this course. What I want my students to walk away with is not “Oh my God, I had a blind teacher and she was so inspiring and so wonderful!” I want them to walk away with, “I had a blind teacher and it was no big deal. She was sometimes really cool and sometimes really annoying. She sometimes took three weeks to grade our papers and sometimes she was really amazing.” I want the blindness part to be in the background. I don’t want them to forget it because it’s there. It’s a part of who I am, but it’s not the only part of who I am. I would like them to come away with a positive experience, not so much because “I’m an ambassador!” but rather, having a very normalized encounter with a person with a disability can be so helpful. And that’s something we are missing, and that’s a big cause for all the inspiration porn. More encounters will hopefully fix that. For instance, the next time the grad students here run into a person with a disability, their first response is not going to be to get totally freaked out and to tell them how inspiring they are for putting on shoes. At least I hope, otherwise I haven’t done my job. More contact normalizes the encounters, and every well-maneuvered encounter you have makes the next one easier on both parties. You’ve had the chance to ask some questions. I’ve had the chance to show you how some things work. We’ve learned how to interact with each other.
[Detour about phone emojis has been edited out of this transcript for length]
N: Now I want to talk to you about the term ‘disability’. What terminology is offensive? How do you feel about people trying to use politically correct language so as not to offend?
K: I have to re-apply the disclaimer here. Your mileage may vary. I’m not a super PC person. I feel much more uncomfortable when someone tries to do linguistic back-flips to not offend me. There is a fine line. I don’t want to be called a handicapped person. I don’t really wan to be called a disabled person. Person with a disability doesn’t bug me, but that’s person-first language. I will sometimes say “the blind woman” because it fits better in a sentence, but that’s purely a sentence structure thing. But in general it’s always better to put the person first when talking about this.
Here is a PSA for everyone listening though: “Handicapped” is out. I know we confuse it because we call them handicapped stalls and handicapped parking spaces, but just don’t do it. ‘Access’ is a much more proactive term. It doesn’t have those connotations of nineteenth-century people with disabilities sitting in an asylum. It gives agency to the people who have to use the materials. A “person with a disability” lets me be that person first, not some person whose disability is being inflicted on them. Access means that I am accessing something. It’s not a matter of offense or not, it’s a matter of agency, and that is the key.
When we get into things like “differently abled,” I don’t care for that personally. It’s awkward, and just applies to pretty much everyone.
I feel like the terms in disability studies are about to hit some rocky patches, sort of like the debates that have gone on in recent years over the term “queer” in academia. Does it mean LGBT? Does it mean anyone who is outside the normative experience? Do we want it to regain its old meanings? I feel like there are some disability terms that are headed for that shake-up.
Now I am, on purpose, not a disability studies person. I am interested in it. I had a really cool moment at the end of undergrad when I discovered that there were disability studies within medieval studies, and I thought it was very cool. But I very actively avoided, for a very long time, any involvement with the field, because I didn’t want it to be perceived as “of course, she’s blind, of course she does disability studies.” The older I’ve gotten, and the further I’ve moved into academia, the more I’ve gotten involved. I’ve started doing things like this podcast. I gave a paper at Kalamazoo, which is the national medievalist conference in the U.S., on the accessibility problems in manuscript studies because the more I encounter these things that have been an impediment to me, the more I feel like it is my duty to talk about them.
N: At least in manuscript studies, there is a wide-spread accessibility problem for images. But the difference, given that digitization still has a long way to go, is that most of us can find the image, or pay for it, and then we have it. You don’t have the same work-arounds that we do.
K: And that’s exactly it; so many of the problems I face are just different versions of the issues a lot of other non-disabled people face. And that’s my interest in disability, to bring it to the forefront, not to make it its own separate thing. I don’t want to have my own playground. I just want to play in your playground. I want to have a seat at the table. I don’t need a separate space. I want to be allowed into the collective academic space. And that’s what most people want.
N: Yes. There is a large part of the academic population, graduate students, early career folks, who are trying to figure the same thing out. “Do I belong here?” So we absolutely should be trying to create an environment of kindness and acceptance, for everyone.
K: Agreed. Though people with disabilities deal with an extra layer of invisibility in that effort. There have been, successful or not, a lot of concerted efforts lately in academic space to bring a seat at the table for people with different gender identities, different races, things like that. There’s been a very publicized effort to make that space at the table for those marginalized groups. You see that less for people with disabilities … and not even because they’re being purposefully excluded, but because they’re not being thought about. It’s like, “Oh, you need space?” Yes, yes, I do, thank you. While diversity in all those other places is great and very necessary, it’s a problem for the disability community. It’s not that we’re being sent away, but we’re not being considered at all. We don’t fit under the big banners of diversity. It’s frustrating when we’re talking about inclusivity, and having all these debates about physical spaces and academic spaces for all of these marginalized groups, that absolutely need them, and we’re not being included. It’s frustrating to be a constant afterthought. We always talk about how it’s not my job to educate people, it’s their job to educate themselves. And I have mixed feelings on that, but it’s annoying to be the one in the back of the crowd always standing up and saying, “Hey, hey, me, look, I’m here. Let me talk. Let me be a part of this. Make space for me the same way you’re making space for everyone else”
N: Great. And on that, I think this is a great place for us to wrap up. Thank you for talking with me today.
… And there you have it. I hope that was informative, and that you had as much fun reading as I had recording. Again, a huge thank you to Sarah, who you can check out at sarahblakelarose.com. And all errors here are mine, not hers. Now that I have this off my plate, be expecting some new content coming soon on some other topics. Also, as I am trying to actually make this blog a continuous thing, if you have questions, or topics you would like to see covered, please feel free to get in touch. Until next time, everyone have a happy fourth of July, and please comment here with your thoughts.