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The Discourse of Disability in Communication Education

Narrative-Based Research for Social Change

Ahmet Atay and Mary Z. Ashlock

This book examines the ways in which communicative practices influence the lives of students and faculty with disabilities in higher education. Offering their own experiences as teachers and students, the authors use qualitative research methods, mainly narrative and autoethnography, to highlight the intersections among communication, disability, diversity, and critical communication pedagogy. While embodying and emphasizing these connections, each chapter defines the notion of disability from a different point of view; summarizes the relevant literature; provides suggestions for different ways of improving the experiences of people with disabilities in higher education; promotes social change; and in some cases, promotes policy change. Overall, the volume promotes more effective, mindful, honest, and caring interaction between able-bodied and disabled individuals.
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Chapter Two: Navigating Communication Courses: The Impact of Visual Impairment on the Teacher–Student Relationship in Communication Classrooms

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Navigating Communication Courses

The Impact of Visual Impairment on the Teacher-Student Relationship in Communication Classrooms



Everyone has a story to tell. Some stories align with society’s master narrative, whereas others tell of different experiences and understandings. This chapter provides a retrospective look at the experiences of Deleasa, a sighted college professor, and Kelsey, an undergraduate communication studies major with a visual impairment. Deleasa has been a faculty member for the last two decades in the Department of Communication Studies at Ashland University, a small private institution located in north central Ohio. Kelsey was a transfer student who came to Ashland University after taking classes at a regional campus of a local state university. Our teacher–student relationship spanned several semesters and involved a wide range of courses, including performance studies, international storytelling, and interpersonal communication. We also shared the experience of academic advisor–advisee roles. Although there are many advantages to a small campus for a student with visual impairment, one disadvantage might be the limits of available support. Being a small campus, the Office of Disability Services offered Kelsey guidance and support to the best of their abilities in light of the small staff and limited resources.

Kelsey: Toward the end of my first semester at Ashland University, I changed my major from psychology to French with a minor in communication. Sometime during my ← 29 | 30 → sophomore year, I changed my communication minor to a major. I changed my major because the Office of Disability Services felt I would be overwhelmed with the heavy research component of the psychology major. I did not know what to expect nor was I aware of the many challenges communication courses can present.

Deleasa: I was nervous when Kelsey first enrolled in one of my performance classes. I wasn’t sure how things would work for her on the visual side of things. She seemed excited and I trusted that. It felt like there was a whole list of rules or “dos and don’ts” that I did not know. I kept thinking that the Office of Disability Services would step in with more help, but they are very busy. From our limited discussions they gave me some basic ideas, but I was left with an uncertainty of how to negotiate my new teaching role. Reflecting on our time together is bittersweet. Although it is validating to think back to the things that worked well, and although we hope our experiences can be somewhat of a cautionary tale for future teachers and student, there is a part of looking back that feels a bit like “too little too late.” As I sometimes say to Kelsey “I want a do-over.”

In this cocreated narrative dialogue, we look back on our time together negotiating the balance between ability/independence versus the need for support/dependence. The goal of this chapter is to highlight the particulars of our relationship and share our stories as a way to offer insights and potential advice for future communication instructors and their students. Looking back, we can see areas of success, but at the same time ways in which we could have improved our communication and adaptive techniques to improve the learning experience.


Researchers in the field of disability studies often work toward expanding our notions of disability by allowing the underrepresented voices of people with disabilities to be heard (Antelius, 2009; French, 2006; Rappaport, 1995; Susinos, 2007). Although historically most research has excluded the narratives of people with disabilities, an increasing number of scholars call for the use of oral histories and autobiographical data to expand our understanding of experiences and need for policy changes (Armstrong, 2003; Atkinson, 1997; Borsay, 2005; Couser, 1997; Davis, 2013; Goodley, 1996; Hirsh, 1997). This focus empowers the people living with disabilities to tell their story and highlight their experiences and perceptions, as opposed to allowing able-bodied professionals the power to define disability needs (Rappaport, 1995).

Worley (2000) notes a particular lack of stories and experiences from the student’s perspective. Without these stories, educators lack adequate insights into the needs and preferences of students with disabilities. Stories have the power ← 30 | 31 → to highlight individual experience and heal institutional structures and processes. Kelsey’s story is unique to her particular context, but her insights shed light on the needs of students in higher education. Susinos (2007) used narrative research to look at the social exclusion of persons with disabilities. Her biographical narrative approach taps into what she calls the “emancipatory qualities” of looking at social exclusion “from the point of view of the main actors” (p. 118). Many researchers using narrative approaches to disability studies believe that “stories can politicize personal experience” (French, 2006, p. 2). Our story details the ways in which we collaboratively navigated the unique aspects of various communication courses combined with the specific adaptive requirements of visual impairment. As with all stories, this story offers the specifics of lived experience in an effort to make sense of the overarching principles guiding our everyday communication. Our cocreated narrative offers insights into what Antelius (2009) would call “joint co-constructions” (p. 362). In our case, this conavigation of instructional needs and requirements created a reciprocal learning environment where unanticipated challenges, negotiations of help giving, and issues of cultural sensitivity became crucial factors in the educational environment. As with any cultural difference, an awareness of differences in behaviors, norms, and attitudes can increase understanding and bridge the gaps between life experiences. Our collaborative journey described in this narrative dialogue outlines distinct experiences of awareness in the area of ability, assistance, and adaptation in the field of communication and disability studies.


Kelsey: One particular challenge was participating in performance classes where both verbal and nonverbal language would be important. I’ve sung in choir for years, but this is a very different type of performance. In a choral setting, aspects like diction and portraying emotion in the voice are more important than gestures and body movement. In a class where a large component is telling stories, I knew that nonverbal elements would also be important. Because I had little experience in acting or similar situations, I did not know much about gestures or body movement and how it could be used to help tell a story.

Deleasa: I became very aware of how visual my teaching style is as the semester progressed. I showed many video examples of other storytellers. I told stories and much of what I do is nonverbal body language, not just the words. Sometimes during a video I would whisper a description to Kelsey to fill in a visual blank for her. I never knew if that was helpful, insulting, annoying, or what. It was hard to know how far to push Kelsey on body movement and physical appearance. She tried to do what she could.← 31 | 32 →

Communication classrooms, like many others in higher education, often involve unique visual components, high levels of participation, and unusual structures due to the interactive nature of the subject matter. Although little research has been done regarding students with disabilities in this setting, much can be learned from more general research on teaching students with disabilities, social definitions and attitudes toward people with disabilities, and more specific research on arts curriculum and the impact that has on students with disabilities.

Issues of ability surface in any educational setting. No two students are alike. Everyone, teacher and student, enters the class with his or her own set of abilities, limitations, and expectations. Most research on disability focuses on the added element of stigma (Corrigan, 2014; Goffman, 1963; Riddle, 2014) and the impact of cultural assumptions in the classroom. Davis (2013) notes the social implications of disabilities and the element of fear it can produce in personal relationships. Smith and Kandath (2000) emphasize that persons with disabilities want to be seen competent communicators in all other aspects. Vision is but one of many possible limitations in the classroom, not the totality of the individual. We experienced a mixture of preconceptions of ability combined with day-by-day discoveries of ability coming from teacher and student. Together it created a navigational puzzle we continually tried to solve.

Kelsey: As part of the class, we watched several videos of storytellers. By listening to the person talk, I could pick up on aspects such as inflection in the voice, sadness, excitement, etc. But because I could not see, I felt like sometimes I was left out not knowing what the person was doing with their arms, face, etc. Deleasa would sometimes describe videos to me, but because I did not have much experience using gestures, I still felt left out. That piece of the puzzle was like trying to do algebra without knowledge of addition and subtraction.

Deleasa: I loved Kelsey’s metaphor about algebra, but it makes me a little sad. I now know that I could have done more to create a proper educational environment. I tried to keep the lines of communication open with regard to need for adaptation of assignments. In the case of voice and body work I could have asked Kelsey for more suggestions ahead of time to help create clearer understanding. When we discuss things now, she has many ideas for appropriate, one-on-one workshop exercises that might have been beneficial. I feel like I want to keep apologizing to Kelsey. I am not sure I can say “I did the best that I could.” But, I certainly did what seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Many scholars call for more overall training for those teaching students with disabilities (Hayhoe, 2008; Kinash, 2006; Kinash & Paszuk, 2007 Worley, 2000). In our case, Kelsey was provided some campus training when she came to the university, but there was no teacher training provided. That is not unique to Ashland ← 32 | 33 → University. Teachers often enter into this important relationship with little solid training and a host of assumptions and preconceived ideas about their students’ abilities and needs. Worley (2000) points to the lack of research on communication within the classroom environment. His survey of teacher attitudes, contact, and behavior points to a need for more training and more research. There are resources available to educators. Kinash and Paszuk (2007) offer concrete information on how teachers can better prepare for their interactions with students with visual impairment. They also describe the primary characteristics of accessible education for blind learners. Borst (2005) provides information on visual impairment and blindness, outlining definitional and legal parameters for postsecondary educational environments in the United States. Without proper training, teachers and students learn by trial and error. This approach emphasizes the importance of communication between the teacher and the student. It also allows for adaptation to be tailored to particular student needs. Teachers, like all individuals in society, could benefit greatly from some general awareness of the needs of students with disabilities and appropriate forms of interaction.

Balancing Dependence and Independence

Deleasa: I tried more and more, as the semesters progressed and Kelsey neared graduation, to encourage her/push her to do things for herself. I worried about her transition to the work world. I wanted her to be successful away from AU and as independent as she could be. I could not help but compare Kelsey to a colleague we had in our department years ago. He was from Ethiopia and had a Ph.D in mass communication. He was also blind, so from my perspective he was navigating cross-cultural experiences on many different levels. We were all amazed at how quickly he adapted to our university. He had his own apartment, took a taxi to and from work, got to his office and classes without assistance. He taught his classes effectively, grading papers electronically. He had the building memorized in a few weeks. There were very few times when his visual impairment seemed to interrupt his life. His only need for assistance that I can recall was someone to guide him when we went to lunch across campus. In him I saw so much possibility for Kelsey’s career. I wanted to help her gain that level of independence or at least not enable her or hinder her. In my conversations with the staff at Disability Services, I sensed that their overarching goal was to encourage Kelsey to do more for herself. I think they wanted to see her succeed and they knew that greater independence probably leads to greater success.

Much of the research on students with disabilities centers on the paradoxical nature of dependence and independence (Antelius, 2009; Hayhoe, 2008; Smith & Kandath, 2000; Soule & Roloff, 2000). In a very real sense, the role of teacher could be seen as one who empowers and encourages students toward independence. But when the student has a visual impairment there are some needs that ← 33 | 34 → may still require outside assistance. Green (2010) writes about the “myth of independence” and how deeply it is rooted in our cultural assumptions here in the United States. She argues that we are all dependent on others to a point. But, she also notes that “we are quick to forget this realizing of humanity in the classroom” (p. 91). The assumption of dependency is a common element associated with the stigma of disability. Smith and Kandath (2000) discuss interpersonal relationships in relation to blindness. They note that dependency is expected, independence is acknowledged, but assertiveness can be viewed negatively by persons with sight. The challenge is finding the right balance between encouragement and letting go.

Kelsey: I was pretty independent in terms of completing assignments. I only asked for assistance once the final paper was written and I needed help proofreading and at times submitting it. In terms of mobility, I did require the help of classmates to get from place to place in the room, in the building, or back after class ended. The Disability Services Office expected me to either ask a classmate myself or learn the routes I needed to take to get from place to place.

Hayhoe (2008) looked specifically at blindness in art classrooms. He investigated social and cultural assumptions about what blind students were capable of achieving in the arts and how those assumptions affected student learning. Denial of early arts education, limited expectations for students, and poor teaching techniques all led to a lack of confidence and a fear of art experiences for the students later in life. In the case of the performance-based communication classes, issues of ability proved to be more challenging than first anticipated. In an effort not to constrain possibilities, sometimes it is easy to miss the limitations in ability.

Kelsey: The issue of physical movement and physical appearance was one area where I felt my experience was not as good as it could have been. As part of each performance, the class was required to write a paper describing the plot, conflict, setting, etc. of the story they were telling. The other component to the written work was a description of what each student would do vocally and physically during the story. Describing what I would do with my voice posed no problem, but when it came time to describe body movement, I was often unsure what to write. Yet I did my best to come up with ideas. Deleasa mentioned the Office for Disability Services on several occasions. This is one area where I think making use of the services would have been beneficial. I think I would have had a better experience if I had gone to talk to the director about the story I was planning to do and asked her for help with the movement and appearance component, both before writing my paper and after it was finished to make sure the movement and costume truly reflected the story. For example, for my final performance in the international storytelling class I told a French story about a duck who wanted his money back. Part of the story involved the duck climbing a ladder. In my paper, I said that I would pretend to climb a ladder. ← 34 | 35 → However, I had no idea how to physically do this because I had never experienced that before even though my dad works in construction. I think what may have helped in this situation would have been for me to meet with someone before the performance and tell them what I was planning to do and have that person demonstrate it physically.

Sometimes the push for independence goes a bit too far. Without proper training, instructors are left to their own best assumptions about ability and limitations. The next story tells of such an experience.

Deleasa: I do know I went too far one time, in terms of pushing Kelsey to be independent. She had a poster presentation accepted at a disability conference at a local state university. Her mentor had encouraged her to submit something and she chose the paper she wrote for my interpersonal communication class. She wasn’t in any classes with me at the time, but I was one of her academic coadvisors and she was proposing a paper from my class, so she came to me for help. I helped her create and submit the proposal, but I started to worry that I was doing too much of the work and she needed to take the lead more. She was so close to graduation. When it came time to create the poster, I provided a template and I worked with Kelsey on crafting the text and designing the layout for the poster. I was busy and I did not carefully proofread the poster. I assumed that was something she could do or that she could ask her mentor or a friend/parent for help. Well, no one really took the time to proof it, even the graphics people who printed it out on a huge poster. It came out with typos/grammar errors. I felt badly but I also felt torn by how much I was to blame. I clearly should have said “I don’t have time to proof this, so you need to find someone who can before we send it to the printer.” I don’t remember if I said something to that effect or if I just assumed someone would proof it. But, to this day I feel guilty that there were errors and grateful to her mentor who discovered them before the conference. She was able to get it reprinted at no cost, because the print shop didn’t proof it either. But it was more than a money issue. It was an example of my struggle to find a balance of helping and pushing for independence.

Kelsey: With regard to the poster Deleasa mentioned in her comments, I felt that I should have taken more responsibility. I worked with Deleasa on the abstract. I brought my laptop with me that had JAWS (Job Access With Speech) screen-reader software on it. I opened up the document I had started and together we worked through it. I corrected the majority of the mistakes while Deleasa described where the mistake was and sometimes helped me locate the sentence if necessary. Or when we were pressed for time, I would have her type while I told her what to correct. When it came time to print the poster, I sent the text to my mentor from Mississippi State because at the time I was in a year-long mentoring project to determine if pairing blind college students with mentors who are visually impaired leads to better employment rates after graduation. My mentor discovered that the text was full of errors although the poster had already been printed. At first ← 35 | 36 → I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I immediately called the print shop and explained the situation. They gratefully did not charge me to get a new poster printed and everything worked out just in time for the conference.


Deleasa: I didn’t know what was “normal” in terms of assistance and what was “overdoing it.” I really wanted to encourage Kelsey to grow, so I feel like I bumbled through the semesters as best I could. The other students seemed to adapt well to Kelsey. She needed help getting from her seat to the front of the room. It was sometimes awkward for me to get to her, but another student would lead her up to the front of the classroom.

Kelsey: I had no problems interacting with the other students. Everyone seemed willing to provide assistance as needed. One area where I needed assistance was getting from my seat to the front of the room. Several students volunteered to help me with this once I explained proper sighted-guide technique. Proper sighted-guide technique involves holding the guide’s arm and walking a half step behind the guide. I had a cane, but in this situation, it was quicker and more convenient to just go with a sighted guide.

Offering assistance in the classroom is a key component of navigating any teacher–student relationship. Part of building an effective learning community in the classroom involves cultivation of shared responsibility and mutual trust. Negotiations of assistance become particularly important in the context of educating students with disabilities. As with other assumptions about dependency, the idea of “helping the handicapped” is a pervasive cultural perception in the United States. Soule and Roloff (2000) give a detailed breakdown of the complexity of offering help from the perspective of resource theory. They distinguish between solicited and unsolicited acts of assistance. When help is requested it allows the individual requesting the assistance to still be in control and in charge of their own needs. When help is offered prior to a request, the able-bodied individual takes control and makes the decision. They also note that the decision to offer unsolicited assistance could possibly lead to greater intimacy building between the participants. However, it may be just as likely to have negative consequences and in some cases, when the individual with a disability is not expecting the help, it could potentially be dangerous. These researchers describe the various ways unsolicited help can create tension in a relationship and the difficulties encountered when the assistance is rejected.

Kelsey: In terms of knowing when and how to offer assistance, it is important to consider the situation. In general, it is best to ask whether assistance is needed and if it is, to let the person explain how to help. For me, the assistance requested was needed when moving ← 36 | 37 → from one part of the building to another or reading a handout. I felt uncomfortable in these situations because I did not want my classmates to view me as being helpless and unable to do things independently.

Deleasa: I knew to be careful of making assumptions when it came to offering assistance. I knew that offering help when it wasn’t requested could be insulting. I knew enough to ask her if she needed help. Somehow, I came into my experience with Kelsey with that piece of the puzzle. But, I was always uncomfortable because of my ignorance. I didn’t know when to guide and when not to. I did not know how to ask about it because I did not want to insult Kelsey. I knew enough not to grab her, but I wasn’t sure quite how to help or what to do. I didn’t know exactly what to do, where to touch her, and how to let her touch me. Touch is so rare in the teacher–student relationship, as is direct guidance. I think I finally asked Kelsey to teach me the right way to guide.

Cheadle (1995) describes the frequency of inappropriate touch and unsolicited assistance from persons with visual impairment or blindness, what she calls “unsolicited ‘laying on of hands’” (p. 2). Her article tells the story of two elementary aged blind students. In both cases the students were “hapless victims of the ‘grab ‘em, push, pull and tug’ model of ‘handing’ the blind” (p. 2). These examples serve to highlight the negative experiences of blind individuals and point to the need for more training and understanding of appropriate ways to offer help.

Kelsey: This example deals with knowing how to guide a blind person. I walked into the student dining area one day and I asked the person who swiped my card to find someone to walk with me to find a staff person to help me get my food. She asked a student walking by to help me. The student did not know how to help me, so she proceeded to grab me and drag me across the room. I kindly asked her to allow me to take her arm which she did, but she still was pulling me across the room. The staff members were very familiar with how to guide me correctly. I had shown each of them when I first met them. One of the staff members who usually took me around saw what was happening and proceeded to say something very firmly to the student who was guiding me. She said “never do that again!” The student never had to guide me again after that incident. I felt taken advantage of because the person helping me did not take my explanation on how to help seriously. I also think this resulted in a missed opportunity to develop a friendship with the person. Finally, I felt uncomfortable because several friends saw what had happened and wondered why someone would do something like this.

Deleasa: As we talked about issues of offering assistance, Kelsey shared with me one poignant story about a day in choir rehearsal when the professor grabbed her face to demonstrate what she wanted her to do. Kelsey was very uncomfortable and talked with the professor about the inappropriateness of the behavior. After rehearsal Kelsey’s friend ← 37 | 38 → was walking with her back to the dorm. Her friend asked if Kelsey was uncomfortable when the professor grabbed her. When Kelsey said “yes,” the friend said, “Oh good, so were the rest of us.” It was a great example of validation for Kelsey. It wasn’t just a case of her being “too sensitive” about the issue. Kelsey’s stories remind me of the importance of considering the other in all situations. Treating people with disabilities with respect by asking permission before offering assistance is one way to show that consideration. Awareness of appropriate levels of assistance is vital to building healthy teacher–student relationships

Soule and Roloff (2000) point out that a common misconception and stereotype of persons with disabilities is that they are too easily offended and highly sensitive about their disability. Any slightly aggressive rejection of unsolicited help can be interpreted as ingratitude and can confirm the stereotype. This misconception places someone like Kelsey in a no-win situation. She needs to be empowered to both ask for assistance when it is needed and at the same time be in control of the manner in which that assistance is given.


In an effort to address issues of ability and need for assistance, we collaborated in many ways to accommodate their differing needs and expectations. Some of these adaptations were successful and some were “less than successful.” The stories that follow outline examples of both categories. Investment of time and careful planning was needed to find the right combination of alterations and enhancements in the classroom. Sometimes this planning came well in advance, but other times we needed to improvise in the moment to find ways to make it all work.

Success #1

Deleasa: In the interpersonal communication class I do many activities and instruments as a way to demonstrate theory and concepts from the book. When Kelsey enrolled in that class I had already had her for two performance classes so I had some idea of the challenges she might encounter. Right away I began thinking though each activity and how it would work for Kelsey. For example, one activity has 13 photos on the page and I ask my students to match up the person with the profession. It is designed to highlight preconceived ideas about roles, physical and contextual details, gender, and age assumptions. For Kelsey, this exercise would create a barrier in the classroom that I did not want. I could have exempted her from the exercise, having her just sit and listened to the discussion, or I could have talked over the images with her one-on-one while everyone else completed the assignment. Neither seemed like a good option. My goal was to have Kelsey participate ← 38 | 39 → in everything (just like she did on the performance classes where she was up in front of the class telling stories) My goal was also to avoid singling her out and making her feel different. So, what we decided to do was to meet ahead of time and go over any of the activities that would require some assistance. This did not apply to all of the activities. Some of them were text based so I could send them to her electronically ahead of time and she could either fill them out early or pull them up on her Braille reader in class. I tried to stay on top of things sending her the activities. I knew as we enacted this plan that it put an extra burden on Kelsey to meet with me outside of class. I was willing, but I was also aware of how much more complicated her life could get in an effort to adapt to a visual world. I can’t imagine my class was the only class where she needed to put in extra time and effort just to do what everyone else did more easily. To me it reminds me of my ESL students who have to put extra time into new translations of language and code switching. Kelsey and I use the same spoken language, but we do not read and write in the same language. In my world, the written code is consistently alphabetic symbols. In Kelsey’s world, those same symbols must be translated into both a sound form (via her JAWS assistive software) and a tactile Braille form (via her Braille translator device). She depends on assistive technology and constant mental code switching in order to communicate in the sighted world.

Kelsey: When I enrolled in the interpersonal communication class I did not realize how visual the class would be. The class was full of activities and instruments to further demonstrate concepts from the book. One activity involved looking at images and matching the person to the occupation. Because I could not see the pictures, I was not sure how I would do this activity. However, after communicating with Deleasa, we decided to meet ahead of time. During our meeting, she listed the names of the different occupations and I just told her what I thought of when I heard the occupation. Deleasa wrote down what I told her in preparation for the class. During class, I shared my ideas about what I thought of during our meeting. Some of the other exercises were text only, so they were emailed to me electronically. I filled them out ahead of time or sometimes I just pulled up the handout during class and filled it out with the rest of the class. When an instrument required scoring, it was sent to me via email and I filled it out ahead of time and sent my responses back to Deleasa to have her score it for me. She just told me my results either in an email or during the next class period. The class was required to write a paper detailing the exercise and the findings. I wrote my papers independently. I occasionally asked someone else to read the papers for me, but most of the time I typed and submitted them independently. I found it easiest to have someone read the final paper with me. This allowed me to catch mistakes I might not notice myself such as grammar or spelling errors. In order to meet with Deleasa regarding certain exercises, we discussed a schedule that would work for both of us. Usually that involved meeting in the building where I had my first class. We would sit in the lobby at one of the tables and discuss the exercise in question. It worked out this way. Emailing the exercises in Word format worked, but ← 39 | 40 → occasionally I did not receive the exercise right away. However, if I sent Deleasa an email requesting the document, I usually received it within a few hours to a day.

Success #2

Kelsey: Another major assignment was a 5–10 minute report on a chapter from the book. The assignment required us to write a report and then present it to the rest of the class. A few students were given articles outside of the text. I was given an article about fitting in socially as a blind person and how assistive technology plays a role in helping blind and visually impaired individuals participate in society with sighted peers. My classmates were very interested in the article and wanted to know more about how assistive technology works. I was also inspired by this article, so I chose to write my final paper about how blind people can use technology such as screen readers, magnification software, and Braille displays to accomplish tasks of everyday life as well as how technology can present challenges for a blind person. I chose this topic in order to educate sighted classmates on how blind people can participate in activities such as employment, math, and watching videos. On the final day of class, each student was asked to present his or her paper in a 3–5 minute presentation. I talked about the accessibility of library materials and the challenges that come with producing electronic files due to copyright violations. I also addressed the topic of using assistive technology in orientation and mobility, particularly in crossing streets. After listening to this presentation, I think my classmates had a better understanding of the challenges I faced and had a better idea of how they could help both in this class and in the future. Assistive technology allowed me to complete assignments, access online resources for papers, and use email to communicate with my professors and other students.

Deleasa: The good thing that came out of these reports was that I had two too many students for the number of chapters I had, so I gave Kelsey and one other student an outside article to report on. In her case, I looked for something having to do with assistive technologies. That article sparked an idea in her mind and she continued with the topic for her final research paper in the class. This is the same research paper that she presented at Ohio State University at a conference on disability studies. The themes centered on assistive technology and the Internet, educational uses, and applications such as traveling and rehabilitation.

The Less-Than-Successful Moments

Kelsey: During each performance class, one class period per semester was devoted to voice and body techniques. This class period was very difficult for me. I could do the voice component with no difficulties, but I had difficulty with the body movement. The class ← 40 | 41 → practiced different types of body movements. Instead of participating, I was encouraged to stay where I was. I think I could have learned so much more if I could have done the body movements. I could have worked with another student, either asking if I could feel their movements or having them show me. At one point, the students were given a handout with different types of body movement and asked to brainstorm in groups how they could demonstrate that action during a story. I just listened to the discussion, but I couldn’t see what the students were doing. I think this seriously affected my performance.

Deleasa: In retrospect I am not sure why I had Kelsey just sit out during the body movement part. I know I never wanted to make her feel uncomfortable or “singled out” in class. Now I know I should have discussed it all with her beforehand and let her be the guiding force on how to best adapt to her needs. Kelsey suggested that it would have been good if she and I had met outside of class, so that she didn’t feel awkward in front of everyone (so maybe a tiny bit of my protective instinct was on track)

Deleasa: One of the most striking examples of a mistake I made was at the end of the very first semester she was in one of my classes. We were doing the student course evaluations, a sheet with both open- and close-ended questions and a Scantron card for answers. It never occurred to me to make arrangements. Kelsey never mentioned it either. I was not allowed in the room. I suggested another student assist her, but she was uncomfortable with that, and rightfully so. I hadn’t thought about confidentiality, or how this would make Kelsey standout in the class. I think we went to see Carolyn, our department secretary, and she administered the evaluation. I can’t quite recall. I know that is how we handled things in subsequent semesters. Carolyn is the person who sees all student evaluations to tally the results, so having her administer it for Kelsey seemed like the closest thing to confidential at the time. In retrospect there were other options. I could have sent the form to Kelsey electronically and had her email the responses to Carolyn. We could have set up an online evaluation for her. At the time I was not using any online components for my classes, but now I know that things would have been available. I also could have called classroom support ahead of time to get their recommendations. It never occurred to me and I have always regretted that mistake.

Kelsey: At the end of the semester, each student was expected to complete a course evaluation. This consisted of a form with several statements and a Scantron where the students rate the instructor in each area. The instructor is not allowed in the room, so Deleasa asked another student to help. I really did not feel comfortable doing this because I did not want the other student to influence my answers in any way. I had done it this way in previous courses, but I always felt like the student helping me was trying to get me to answer in a certain way. Therefore, Deleasa and I made arrangements for me to go talk to the department secretary who then administered the evaluation. She read me the question and I orally dictated my responses to her. This was a better arrangement because ← 41 | 42 → I was not influenced by the other students in determining my responses. Plus, she is the person who sees them, so this was the most effective way to maintain confidentiality.


These stories are a retrospective account of our experiences in and out of the classroom. They highlight the power of narratives to give voice to underrepresented student experiences. It is our hope that they provide evidence for the need for more teacher training, new ways of assessing differing abilities in the classroom, offering assistance in appropriate ways, and adapting to the unique learning needs of students with disabilities. Uniquely negotiated techniques are required to promote learning in the communication classroom. Mutual respect and trust are required to find the right balance between independence on the part of the learner and adaptations and assistance on the part of the teacher. Although generalized awareness of appropriate interaction techniques is important at the beginning of the process, each teacher–student relationship must cultivate a system of communication that works best in a given situation. In our case, that relationship taught us both a great deal about human interaction on personal and professional levels.


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