Tara Brabazon: digital stairways need wheelchair ramps, too

April 20, 2011

Since 1994, I have delivered a Monday morning lecture at 8.30, 9.00 or 9.30am. One of the consequences of teaching first-year students is that academic timetables are skewed earlier in the week to schedule the required number of tutorials. In response to this early Monday start, I have entered into a ritual over the years: rehearse the session six times, get dressed, travel to work, drop my bag and walk to the lecture theatre by 7.30am.

Visiting the auditorium has several purposes. First, I check that the equipment is operational. This ensures that students are not waiting for me to fix a problem that should have been addressed before their arrival. Too many sessions are disrupted when computer passwords do not work or USB sticks of slides are not accessible. It is easier to solve any glitches an hour before students appear.

Second, I monitor the temperature. If the room is too hot, then they will be asleep ten minutes into the session. Too cold and their shivering distracts from learning.

Third, I check that all the tables and chairs are in place and pathways are clear. If students are physically uncomfortable, then they will not learn.

For almost my entire teaching career, students with impairments have been part of the cohort. They are valuable to history, communication, cultural and media studies classrooms because discrimination and oppression are not abstract entities to be studied. These students live with judgement and externally imposed limitations on their bodies, careers, expectations and aspirations.

Part of my morning lecture routine checks the lecture theatre to ensure that these students – and all students – can position themselves where they choose, rather than being perched at the top of a set of stairs at the back of the room. Visual, tactile, olfactory and sonic platforms used in teaching must be available to all students, not just a few in the front row.

But something is interrupting this ritual. In the past five years, not one student has entered my classroom in a wheelchair. While other impairments have been present, all students have walked into the room to take their seat. Moreover, no students with visual impairments, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis, or from the deaf community, have enrolled. This absence is a problem. I teach students that what is not present – what is not talked about – is more important than what is seen and discussed openly and freely.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if there are no students in wheelchairs in our lecture theatres and courses, then we need to ask why. What is it about our courses and universities that are building disabling barriers to enrolment?

Managing difference matters in education and improves learning for all students. In my bachelor of education, an exceptional course titled “Difference and Disability” was offered to students. That course, taken in 1995, changed my approach not only to teaching and learning, but to thinking about the role of the senses in learning. Print is (only) one channel for information. Consider and develop other options. The key argument of the course, that all of us are disabled in some way, hooked deeply into my consciousness. Indeed, the perpetrators of discrimination against those with impairments are disabled in their attitude.

From this course, I learnt to create – to use the language of the time – an inclusive curriculum. Multi-sensory environments activate multi-literacies. Complex and diverse pathways are configured to move students through content and assessment. These options do not disable the university, but enable a diversity of learners. I remain grateful to the academics in that education degree at Central Queensland University. They gave a young lecturer fresh out of a doctoral programme the tools necessary to ensure that no one is excluded or disadvantaged in my classroom because of my inability to construct alternative pathways to learning.

In the subsequent 16 years, I have used literacy theory to create a tapestry of analogue and digital media. Students select a platform that activates their best literacies to deliver content. Through this process, I made a startling but in retrospect self-evident realisation. The sonic options I made available for students confronting visual impairments helped all students.

While blind students utilised the sonic sessions (originally supplied on analogue cassette and now by downloadable MP3), I found that parents on the school run played them in their car. Other students used the tracks to accompany an evening run on the treadmill. Modifications to curriculum and delivery protocols for students with impairments improved everyone’s learning environment. Adaptations, particularly with scaffolding software and hardware, created opportunities for new modes of learning.

Occasionally, digitisation encourages academic laziness. The strategies teachers are told to implement for students with dyslexia – often delivered via a standardised email – include providing copies of the lecture text and granting more time to complete assignments. While it is simple to send an attachment and sign an extension form, these options let teachers off the hook. It is more productive to work with students and consider the spectrum of options available to create new ways of thinking about platform, text and print.

The status of dyslexia – like that of deafness – is much more complex than what can be captured by a generic category of disability. Dyslexia is not a disability. It is a different way of seeing print. Very frequently, as revealed in the research and my experience, students with dyslexia may have issues with print but possess visual or sonic literacies beyond those of other students. Finding the correct match between a student’s strongest literacy and a pathway to learning may take time, but the results are remarkable.

One example of this strategy in practice emerged during a doctoral supervision. Mike Kent enrolled in Murdoch University’s PhD programme. He manages dyslexia, but he was – and is – Mr Gadget (or actually Dr Gadget) in human form. We experimented with the best strategies to overcome challenges with print by using other senses and media. Together, we wanted to find a way to enhance PhD supervision so that the structures and processes for all postgraduates would improve.

I also had a wider institutional concern. My worry at the time was that while many undergraduate students with impairments were enrolling, they did not continue to the fourth-year honours programme or a doctorate. Their aspirations and achievement were capped. Such a barrier was not intentional, but we as supervisors did not do enough to create strategies to open out the doctoral programme to different ways of learning. Mike was (and is) an inspiration and role model.

The Kent/Brabazon experiment commenced. While my other PhD students had weekly 30-minute sessions, Mike was different. His session would be the last of the day because it was much longer, lasting at least an hour. We would talk through the current chapter, using conversation to shape arguments, locate references and organise a structure. Mike recorded everything, creating a post-print supervisory culture. The day after our meeting, the sonic file would scaffold the writing of his chapter. This process worked so well that he completed his PhD in two years and six months. The three external examiners all commended his innovation, rigour and clarity of thought.

From his example, I have continued to experiment with sonic supervision and have improved my teaching because of Mike and outstanding students like him. The joy of being a teacher is that such extraordinary postgraduates become better than their supervisors. Mike is now Dr Kent and a lecturer in internet studies, teaching his students with the same rigour, precision, passion and humour that he brought to our meetings.

With Katie Ellis, a lecturer in communication and cultural studies at Murdoch University, he has written a new book for Routledge, titled Disability and New Media. It configures an interdisciplinary matrix of internet studies, disability studies and cultural studies, to show how a post-Fordist, customised, read-write web has made it more difficult for screen readers and Braille tablets to operate. But the authors also acknowledge the profound benefits that emerge when accessibility is part of the originating design of hardware and software. Apple’s iPad 2 is an example of accessible functions being included as features in the product, rather than as downloadable options.

Ellis and Kent apply Tim Berners-Lee’s imperative from 1997:

“Worldwide, there are more than 750 million people with disabilities. As we move towards a highly connected world, it is critical that the Web be useable by anyone, regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities.”

Ellis’ and Kent’s fear is that “analog social prejudice is reproduced in the digital world”. They apply the social model of disability, where impairment describes a bodily attribute and disability is imposed via assumptions about an able body. This is a standard no one can reach. But the illusion of perfection is particularly discriminatory for those who require accommodations for (im)mobility or managing print or aural cultures.

If – as Berners-Lee demanded – accessibility is part of the universal design of the World Wide Web, then online learning is improved by creating spaces for diversity, multi-literacy and multiple pathways through learning. If teachers do not accept this challenge then, to cite Ellis and Kent, we may be “building digital stairways” that offer a “nice view, but what about my wheelchair?”

It was a privilege to supervise Mike. His research with Katie Ellis is inspiring. They reveal the many ways that discrimination can be challenged in daily life. However, education remains an area that requires attention. Teachers make decisions on a daily basis that inhibit or enhance the learning life of every student. We make casual choices that render educational content inaccessible.

Michael Oliver, one of the founders of disability studies, in writing the second edition of his landmark book Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice, remembered that “poor access to educational buildings coupled with the disablist attitudes of many educators meant that a thick skin was a necessary prerequisite for kicking open the door of educational opportunity”.

Our task is to ensure a freedom of movement around university buildings, but also to listen to students, ensuring that high standards are maintained and diverse opportunities, platforms and literacies are available to reach those standards. Oliver argues that disabling services (of dependency, reaction, fixed options and few opportunities) should be replaced with an environment of independence, choices, rights, entitlements, user-led support and creativity.

The goal is to ensure that the aspirations of all students are not capped by the availability or unavailability of content, care and support. All students in our classrooms should have the opportunity to attain first-class honours and postgraduate degrees if they choose. This level of achievement must be determined by intellectual ability, not impairment.

In arguing for inclusive education, issues of diversity and development are part of every moment of teaching and learning. Universities must represent the best of what life, work and leisure can be. When we fall short, it is a personal and social tragedy. In dark times for university funding, our institutions are judged not by their fee levels but how they assist those who require help and support. This is not (only) a question of rights, but a commitment to valuing difference and increasing the usefulness of education for the workplace and life.

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