Before I get started today, I must first emphasize that this post is not intended as a poorly-disguised roast of a certain individual (who here remains nameless). The situation was unfortunate, and I have my own opinions about that as you’ll see, but this is not a roast. There are many who know a lot of details about this situation, including the professor’s name, the course she teaches, and the program she is involved in. While some of this may be guessed at, and while I am not bound by anything in particular, I ask those of you who have this information to keep it to yourselves. I discourage any spreading of information that isn’t already in this blog post. I don’t want unjustified backlash to hit this person, her program, or her institution.
Now that that’s out of the way … on we go!
The word disability implies that there will be some things a person will be unable to do if they have one. If you’re blind, being unable to do certain things goes with the territory; you get used to it early on, and maybe if you’re lucky you manage to prove a few people wrong along the way. In general, though, some things are going to be beyond us … and that’s okay. I’ll never be able to colour-coordinate my outfits; I’ll never pick out my own wedding dress (simply liking how it feels isn’t enough, sadly); I’ll never be able to be a photojournalist. (Okay, so I’m at peace with that last one.) And guess what? I’m fine with that.
What I’m not fine with is being told I’m unable to do something when I am, in fact, very able. This type of statement usually comes in two forms:
1. “You can’t do this at all, because you’re blind. Sorry.” Or,
2. “You can’t do *all* of this, so you shouldn’t do any, sorry.”.
First of all, unless we’re talking about the painfully obvious stuff (photojournalism, anyone?), no one is a better judge of what I’m capable of than I am. I know myself best, and as long as I know what I’m signing up for, I’m usually right. This goes for things I can’t do, as well: if I insist that such-and-such a task is absolutely impossible, it probably is.
Being told I can’t do something when it’s actually true is tough to hear, but I can deal with it. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, etc. etc. However, life isn’t always so kind. A few days ago, I was just beginning my third year in a university program I really, really love. I took this program with fairly specific goals in mind, and third year is when I get to realize some of these goals. I was very, very excited. And then …
I got an email right before the class I was looking forward to most; it was from the instructor teaching the class. I was expecting a “welcome to the class” sort of message, but that’s not quite what I got. In effect, the email informed me that the instructor was sure I would be partially, if not totally unable to do the work required for the course; she thought I had probably been ill-advised, and that I should consider alternative paths. After finishing the email, I swear I felt my whole world shift beneath me. It didn’t quite crumble, but it thought about doing so. I was instantly in tears. “There goes my future…” I thought to myself. The class was a core, required prerequisite to other classes I desperately wanted to take. I had paid for it. I had been accepted into the program, and promised that I’d be given the chance to do as much as I possibly could to be on par with everyone else. And yet, here I was, being barred from one of the most important courses in the entire degree. That would all have been devastating, but acceptable … assuming the instructor had been right. Sometimes, there are bits I simply can’t master, and that’s perfectly okay with me.
I understand where this instructor was coming from: she wasn’t sure how much time it would take to accommodate my needs on a regular basis. She wasn’t certain of how to go about teaching me differently than the other students. She was hesitant about having to mark me somewhat differently than the others. The list goes on. She was very polite, very gracious, and very sincere. I knew then (and know now) that she was not trying to be discriminatory, or malicious, or any of the other descriptors others have thrown at the situation since it got started. If I have her as an instructor in future, I will be very fortunate: she really knows her stuff. About this, though, I think she might have been wrong.
First, I have since discovered that the course can be taught in very different ways: another professor at this same university teaches the entire class on computers, making it very accessible for a blind student. Second, I have discovered that the method this instructor was using was not so standard as to be the only viable way to go about things. I would still be employable, even if I was unable to do the work exactly the way her sighted students can. Deciding not to teach me at all, therefore, put her insistence on sticking to a certain method above my ability to do the work at all. Without boring you, suffice it to say that it came down not to my skills or abilities, but rather to the fact that I can’t use a pencil. That’s it. That’s all it really was, if you look at the big picture. Such a tiny, insignificant detail! And yet it was enough to keep me from pursuing my goals in this program.
I accepted everything she said with as much grace as I could. I agreed to audit the course (I’d still pay some tuition but get neither the credit nor the feedback) and went on my not-so-merry way. I thought then (and still think), that she was probably doing the best she could. Maybe I didn’t like the result, but I knew better than to take it personally. While it is my opinion that she should be prevented from doing this to future students unless it’s truly necessary, I do not and will not endorse any roasts, rants, or other negativity aimed at her personally. If you see any of this, know that I neither approve nor validate any of it. I have not included her name, so those of you who know it should please keep that information to yourselves. My quarrel is with the situation, not the individual herself. Let no more be said on that matter, in particular.
Here’s the thing, though: her refusal to think outside the box very nearly impacted my degree. I got lucky (another professor stepped up to the plate, brave soul), but others don’t get lucky. Others have professors who mark them down on purpose, trying to get them to fail out of the program. Others are denied entrance into a program on the basis of blindness or other physical disabilities for very flimsy reasons. Others are told that the only things they’ll ever be good for are basket-weaving and maybe some beadwork if they’re truly enterprising. Yes, people are actually told these things. Today. In 2014.
Because others are not so lucky, I feel obligated to speak for them. I am fortunate, but others were not, and are not, and will not be. People will be turned away, and set aside, and pushed out of where their dreams take them, all because of laziness, or stubbornness, or fear of progression, or lack of understanding, or any other sad excuse anyone is willing to name. I wasn’t turned away. I was able to go where I wanted to go, and found people more than willing to take the journey with me. Most importantly, I am being given the chance to find out whether that instructor was right or wrong. Maybe she is right, and maybe I’ll fall flat on my face in a heap of exhaustion two weeks into the course. Maybe. … But what if I don’t?
Ultimately, I was able to respond to “you can’t”, and “you won’t”, with “I can”, and “I will”. Let’s help others do that, too. If you see any instances of discrimination, whether intended or unintended … whether well-meant or malicious … whether seemingly justifiable or blatantly ridiculous … say something. Please. The victim may feel that the discrimination is justified. They may feel bound by confidentiality agreements, or politics, or fear of retribution, or serious backlash. I myself was hesitant about speaking up, because I was afraid to damage my relationship with the university, the program faculty, and anyone else who might want to weigh in on the situation. Most of all, I was afraid to endanger the tenuous relationship I could have with the instructor who turned me away. The last thing I want to face is difficulty in future because I advocated for myself.
If they can’t speak (and sometimes they just can’t), then who will? Sometimes, we can’t do things…but most of the time, we can. And we will.