Twitter has made it possible for me to communicate with a wide variety of people from all over the globe in a fairly accessible environment. On Twitter, you get to design yourself the way you’d like to be seen. It’s great fun and often very liberating; however, it has a way of making reality look a little gloomy.
One thing I have been very open about on Twitter is the fact that I am Deaf. I use American Sign Language as my primary means of communication, although I consider English to be my first language. I’m proud of my accomplishments and I rarely consider myself disabled. It’s only when the veil is lifted off my Twitter world and I attempt a bit of real-world collaboration that I am “disabled,” and it’s not because of my deafness, but rather because those around me find it difficult to shift perspective.
I attended #TCEA13 conference last week and enjoyed most of it very much! However, a few workshops left me feeling angry and frustrated. I hate being patronized. I hate walking into a room flanked by interpreters and garnering eyes. I hate people coming up to me asking me if I know Braille. I hate sitting at a table alone because no one wanted to work with the “deaf girl.” I ended up ditching a workshop smack in the middle of group work (which wasn’t a group unless you counted my interpreters) so that I could find a seat amidst a crowd rather than sit up front where it was clear I was the “deaf girl.” I came to the conference hoping to be considered an equal, not a zoo exhibit. Unfortunately, being made into a spectacle was my same experience in high school. Haven’t we grown up since then?
Seriously, it’s time to grow up. The world is full of people who aren’t your shape, size, color, or flavor. This is an opportunity for you to reconfigure your understanding of the world.
As I rant, I think about my students and their experiences in other schools. Many of them transferred to my school after attending a mainstream program. They come to my school to feel like an equal and not so “special.” In my class, students aren’t flanked by interpreters. They can sit wherever they want. They participate in groups and may decide they don’t want to work with some other students, but it’s not because those students are deaf. Students participate in all aspects of school: sports, clubs, after school activities, without having to constantly overcome the hurdle of being the “deaf kid” and having to explain to hearing people what language access means. They get to be student council president, athlete of the month, cheerleading captain and/or valedictorian. However, our school is considered the most restrictive option for deaf students and is often a last resort.
As much as we Deaf try to shirk the label “disabled” it is what the world around us sees. Mainstream schools need to have a major paradigm shift, and that shift needs to start with its teachers. Teachers need to start taking a more “universal design” approach to their lessons. They need to consider how accessible their content is to all types of students. If you approach learning as providing a set of pathways for students to choose, adding a deaf student or any other “disabled” student to your class should not dramatically change the way you teach. All students are capable of learning, and they are capable of thriving if the environment is right. We need to focus on accessibility and design, not on the disability itself. It’s not, “oh, my student is deaf and can’t hear. How can I give him/her access to sound?” It should be, “hmmm my student requires access to a visual language. How can I incorporate this into my lessons so that all students expand their visual literacy?” It’s not “I have a student in a wheelchair, how can I set up space for him to work?” It should be, is my classroom designed for all students to move about freely and access what they need?”
If we as teachers set up a classroom without barriers and in which all students are equals, then perhaps students will begin to see each other as equals as well.