How my able-ism stuffed me up: A reflection on my practice

For years now, when I lecture, I rarely stand still. I wander up and down the corridors of the lecture theatre. Sometimes I get students up to interact, I ask them questions. I have been known even to move them around physically to illustrate a point. I don’t use paper notes. I’ll have a few PowerPoint slides that prompt the thread of my session. I have a big voice and I don’t use a mic because everyone can hear me. Or so I thought. 

My “performance” was rudely interrupted on Wednesday when a minute into my lecture two students told me that they couldn’t hear me. They were hearing impaired. Completely thrown, I ended up having to stand behind the lectern, something I almost never ever do. The position of the lectern in the Central Theatre at South Bank campus of Griffith Uni, is in the corner of the theatre, and IN THE DARK!!! As it turned out, my brain froze, and if how I felt about my deliver is anything to go by, for the students surely the lecture was sub-standard.

So what happened? 

I realised afterward that it was my own able-ist assumptions that stuffed me up. Roving mics are available in that lecture theatre, but it never occurred to me to get one because this “problem” had never presented itself before. Actually, writing this, it occurs to me that it probably has, and I was just too self-absorbed and inside my own head to see it.

I’ve always been committed to providing lecture notes and follow-up on the web for my students. I’m aware that economic access issues can prevent students from getting campus. Family commitments can impact student’s study opportunities – a sick child at home can mean that you miss the lecture where “they talk about the assignment”. In the past I’ve tried to provide additional support to international students whose lack of prior knowledge and understanding of the Australian context alienates their learning opportunities. I’ve encouraged them to relate the Indigenous issues work we do in the course to their own country. I’ve provided additional learning opportunities to student’s whose cultural capital meant that their ability to engage with the academy is hindered. And it’s funny, sad and pathetic (on my part), that in a lecture about re-thinking how we see the world and challenging assumptions, I was unable to do that for student’s whose physical needs impacted on their access.

What a wake up call! Thanks to the students who stopped me on Wednesday. It peeved me at the time. And I was cranky that I’d got thrown. But you have now allowed me to see what I didn’t see before. I’ve never used the term ableism before, though I’ve heard it used by others. My personal interests have always been in issues of race and culture and occasionally gender and sexuality. But the lesson i’ve learned this week is that privelige and needs transcend categories. My promise is that  I’ll do everything I can to ensure that I work with the needs of ALL my students.

Note: I’ve created a new category here on The Critical Classroom called Curating Your Thinking. This idea came to me in a lecture this week. For me, its about not letting other discourses determine how I will think about something. Or, probably more importantly, its about having an awareness of how prevailing discourses are influential and are present when we think. Still playing with this idea.