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Friday, 6 June 2014

Disability Studies in the Classroom

Earlier this week I ran a workshop at the Higher Education Academy Arts and Humanities Teaching and Learning Conference at the Lowry Centre, Salford Quays. In the session I explained how I argued that disability (and Disability Studies) can offer much to non-disabled students and teachers.. Then my friend and colleague Sherie Griffiths explained how in her work with businesses, she emphasises the importance of audio (rather than visual) communication.

Here is the paper I gave:


When Monsters Talk Back: 

How Disability Studies Can Enhance (Mainstream) Teaching and Learning Strategies

In her 1998 essay Claiming Disability Studies, Simi Linton argues that Disability Studies is an essential component in liberal arts degree programmes. Whilst disability has existed for some time as a module or option on courses in what we might call the applied arts and humanities such as social work, music therapy and teacher training, it is only very gradually beginning to appear in traditional arts and humanities subjects like English, History and Modern Languages. Where it does exist in a university setting is in the student support departments dealing with pastoral issues, extenuating circumstances, special teaching and assessment arrangements. But just because universities are able to support disabled students does not mean that they are working within the framework of Disability Studies. Indeed some support services can unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes or create unhelpful myths of disability because students seeking such support are always seen as deviating from the norm. Consequently, students with disabilities are often reluctant to ask for help or declare their disability because of fears that this will adversely affect their studies and, more importantly, their career prospects. Disabled staff in HE are even less visible than their students.

Yet Disability Studies is hugely relevant to the humanities because it addresses questions which are central to the ways we understand the world. Its challenge to notions of normality, beauty, perfection, value and usefulness are relevant to everyone, disabled or non disabled.

Today I would like to discuss ways in which content, methodologies and approaches inspired by Disability Studies might be productively used in HE learning and teaching more generally and the impact this might have on both non disabled and disabled students. In so doing we would like to encourage you to question assumptions about ‘normality’ and embrace the 'monstrous'.

I have been registered blind all my life but because I have what ophthalmologists like to call ‘some useful sight’, in one eye, I have, until recently, always operated in a sighted way and done my best to ‘pass’ as a fully sighted person. Whilst at an academic conference two years ago I realised that it was time to embrace my identity as a partially-blind university lecturer and place it at the centre of my academic career. As I read Georgina Kleege's important book Sight Unseen, I realised that blindness was not something to be ashamed of or hidden, but something to be claimed, embraced, celebrated. I gave up trying to 'pass' as a sighted academic and 'came out' as blind to my students and colleagues. 

As well as beginning to focus on disability-related texts and issues in my teaching and in my research, this also meant thinking about alternative strategies for engaging with my students in the classroom. I was finding it difficult to keep my classes focused and make sure that everyone was contributing when I couldn’t make eye contact with my students or see who or where they were. So I began developing alternative techniques: I started asking students to break the habit of a lifetime by shouting out questions and comments rather than putting their hands up. I asked them to call on each other when they could see that someone had something to say, and I got them to say their name before they spoke. At first I found them incredibly reluctant to engage with me in this way but they have gradually become more confident about this interactive and student-led way of learning. As a result we’ve had some great discussions, both inside and outside seminars, I feel like I know them much better than I used to and I've found that they are much more willing to accept that sight-based communication is not the only way of interacting in a classroom – or indeed in life. Consequently they are learning that blindness in particular, – and disability in general - is not necessarily a negative or tragic experience: it is simply a different way of being in the world. They feel more confident about expressing their own needs as learners and they are more accepting of other peoples’ differences. What started as a set of practical solutions to deal with the impact my blindness was having on my teaching has become a whole new approach to difference, ability, the hierarchy of the senses, identity, authenticity, acceptance and even personhood.

One of the advantages of being open and honest about my blindness in the classroom, on twitter and in my blog ‘Blind Spot’ (which I encourage students to read), is that students feel empowered to apply what they have learnt from me and my teaching methods to the materials we study. More broadly, looking at sight and vision differently often helps students to question attitudes to related notions like normality, beauty and perfection. Such discussions also call into question the supremacy of the visual medium of film. After being taught by me, students tell me they feel able to challenge the widespread assumption that disability is about tragedy, struggle, suffering and pity. Not only can I encourage my students to see disability in a positive way, I can also help them question their own preconceptions as well of those of society in general.

One example of the way I use course content to encourage my students to think critically is the film Amélie which I teach as part of a final-year course on representations of Paris in fiction and film. In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 film, the eponymous heroine devotes herself to a succession of fairytale-Godmother-like good deeds. One such endeavour consists of guiding a blind man across a road and along a busy street before depositing him at the entrance to the local metro station.

As they go along, Amélie gives him a gossipy audio-description of the people and shops they pass. On one level, this episode is a piece of harmless fun. It demonstrates the vibrancy of the rue Lepic area whilst highlighting Amélie's eye for amusing detail and flair for language. But this extract is also problematic when viewed from a Disability Studies perspective. Not only does Amélie fail to ask the blind man where he wants to go, she doesn't give him the chance to get a word in edgeways. She points out the smell of the greengrocer's melon (a smell the man would surely have recognised for himself) without bothering to grab a piece for him to taste. She tells him what is on sale at the butcher's without checking that he has already done his shopping. And she describes delicious-sounding cheeses to him without asking him if he'd like to stop and choose some. I find food shopping in France a beguiling yet frustrating business: there is just too much choice and it all smells so wonderful. I love French cheese but always feel like I am missing out by not being able to read all the labels and make an educated selection - if I met Amélie in Montmatre, I'd insist (if she ever stopped talking) that she describe the cheese to me in mouth-watering detail rather than rushing me past the shop at dizzying speed. But here she keeps the blind man trapped in his own passivity, thus perpetuating the myth that the blind are helpless and vulnerable.

Amélie's actions are certainly well-intentioned, and the dazzling way that the blind man's face is lit up at the end of the clip suggests that Jeunet too thinks that this must have been a genuinely wonderful experience for him. But this way of thinking suggests that the blind are lacking something in their relationship with the world which they must rely on the kind-hearted to give them. That a world without sight is a world without knowledge, sensation and community. That sight is better than no sight. This is perhaps not a surprising reaction from a film-maker. But what if this blind man relates to the world in a wholly different way? What if the pictures he gets from hearing, touching, smelling and tasting the world are just as fulfilling as Amélie's and Jeunet's fetishization of vision? Or, more worryingly, what if Amélie's unsolicited arrival in his life has shown him a world that he was not even aware of? Will he be left happy and grateful to have experienced more fully the world around him? Or will he be left feeling miserable and inadequate, having discovered that others prize most highly a sense that he does not share.
My students only noticed the more problematic elements of this scene after I’d talked to them about my own blindness and used my non-visual communication techniques with them. Where they had once unquestioningly accepted the episode as an example of Amelie’s Princess-Diana-like goodness, they now began displaying impressive levels of critical analysis in their responses to it.

This dual approach, where I talk to students about the practicalities of how their learning will be a different experience because of my blindness, and then ask them to rethink their own understanding of disability through course content, means that they are much less ready to accept the stereotypes and clichés of disability with which popular culture surrounds us.







1 comment:

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