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Guest Post: A Personal Note on Accessibility

Why is technology and accessible practice important? It is important because there are likely more accessibility needs in your classroom than you know. It is not always easy for someone with an accessibility need to come forward because when you do you are singling yourself out and subjecting yourself to negative attitudes. I remember being told by my aunt and cousin that I was “probably not really deaf, I was just looking for attention.” It hurt so bad, especially coming from my aunt; she was there when I was diagnosed… These words still sting. It is important to know that if students come forward with accessibility requests, it forces them to out themselves as a person with a disability, which can come with considerable stigma.

When I was 6 years old, in Grade 1, due to illness I lost 98% of my hearing in my right ear and give or take 10% in my left ear. I remember missing school for about a month, I think, and when I returned to school, I was moved from my desk near my friends to the front of the classroom, and I remember hating it. This was repeated every year. I would start school with a new teacher and sit near my friends then my mom would come along and let the teacher know I was hard of hearing and I would be moved to the front of the classroom. I really really hated sitting away from my friends. I lived in a small town with a small elementary school and my dad’s shop was across the street so it was not all bad. I could see when he was there from the playground so often I went over to “help” him at lunchtime and I would often forget to go back when the bell rang. Those were the good old days! 

Things became worse when I started high school. First, I had to ride a crowded noisy school bus for 45 minutes each way. It was awful. The first bus ride was the first time I really remember being anxious, but I had no idea what it was. Little did I know, my next experience with anxiety would come shortly after getting off the bus. I remember walking out of my first class into the hallway which was packed with yelling teenagers; my heart was racing again, I broke out into a cold sweat, and I panicked and left. I am the youngest of 3 girls so I knew about calling from the school’s pay phone. My sisters called and let it ring twice then my mom called the pay phone back so that is what I did to let her know I was leaving. This became an almost daily pattern, I went to school, my heart would race, I had cold sweats, I called my mom and left. I became really good at this. I always signed out of high school; I had reasons for leaving. I would pop a brace off my teeth and sign out to go to the dentist, I would have an ear ache and need to go to the doctor, or specialist, or audiologist. It went on and on and on. I always had an excuse to leave. Eventually, much to my parents’ dismay, I was able to get a full time job as a live-in nanny and quit going to high school. I will say things were much better then. 

Let’s fast forward a few years, to when I returned to school as an adult. It was harder because I had 3 girls of my own aged 12, 11, and 8, but it was better because no one was yelling and I had some of my anxiety under control. I was also highly motivated: I wanted to set a good example for my daughters. As an adult learner, I was shy to voice my needs in the classroom. The only time I voiced my needs in the classroom was in a physics class where the instructor spoke very quietly while facing the whiteboard. I was so nervous when I asked him if he could talk louder because I was hard of hearing and I was so surprised when he was nice about it and simply said “sure, I can do that.” I think it is important to say that it took until I was 37 years old to have the confidence to ask an instructor to speak louder without fear of being told I was only seeking attention.

My takeaway from my experience is this: don’t wait for students to come forward with their accessibility needs. Instead, plan to design classroom experiences the best you can to meet the needs of all students. We should be doing our best to design in a diversity of ways to participate to create a sense of belonging for everyone. Accessibility should not be only for those who come forward with needs, it should not be about the physical environment: rather, it should be about access to and representation in content for all. 

You might be wondering what would have helped me have a better experience in the classroom and I have given that a lot of thought. I feel having had sufficient time to ask questions, and when I asked the same question more than once, having the answer written down would have helped. Instead, I was dismissed as the student who didn’t get it. Knowing where to find support would have been helpful, too. It was not until I started back as an adult that I was told in class where to find help. I took advantage of that help when I was in UPREP classes and I did all my homework in the UPREP center. In my undergraduate classes, I made many appointments with librarians and with the writing center and I did my math homework in the math and stats help center. It would have been helpful to know about diverse individuals: can you imagine if I had known that there were other hearing impaired people who went through high school and what it was like for them? Most of all, it would have been helpful if someone asked how I was doing or what I was experiencing rather than thinking I was just a bad teenager.

I feel that being addressed directly and knowing where to find support would help all students. I also feel there is more we can do to help all students. For example, eliminating high-cost course materials or supporting students in using earlier editions of textbooks; unless there are prerequisites for your course, do not assume students have prior knowledge on course topics; and, most importantly, keep an open mind. Do not make assumptions about what students can and cannot do, especially students with disabilities. 

I am curious to find out what your thoughts are on creating a more inclusive classroom.