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Digital Accessibility

Disabled Student, Disabled Teacher: Accessibility Behind the Curtain

Being a disabled student is tough. Keeping up with deadlines, getting to classes, dealing with health issues alongside all the other requirements of academic work – it can be overwhelming. But one thing that makes it worse is when you run into a professor who throws you more hurdles than you can handle.

I have never wanted to be that professor.

And, I hope, I never will be.

As part of my program here at USC, I have an agreement with the English department. In addition to taking classes and writing a dissertation, I have taught classes in the First Year English (FYE) program. It has been a lot, at times, but it’s also been great, because I want to go into higher education after I graduate, so the training has been excellent. My students have been a huge part of my development, just as much as I hope I have been a part of theirs.

A lot of that development is learning how to balance the needs of accessibility. Of course, I have my own experiences with accessibility and accommodations. And a lot of my accessibility needs come up when I teach, too, not just in taking classes. I taught online for two years because of COVID. I have to sit down when I teach thanks to my heart condition – last semester, there wasn’t a chair in my classroom at the start of the semester and I nearly passed out going over the syllabus. We got a chair in there real quick! There’s also learning when accommodations need to find balance with the requirements of the job. I get bad migraines, and sometimes they’re so bad I can’t safely drive to campus. But I can’t just cancel class all willy nilly, as much as everyone would probably call me their favorite professor. So I drag myself out of bed and design an online lesson that works with what would have been that day’s learning objectives.

But being a disabled teacher has also primed me for dealing with the disabilities and needs of my students, too. Just as I have my own accessibility needs, my students need accommodation in their own ways. Because of my own experience, I’m better suited to understand where they’re coming from. This is not to say that my abled colleagues cannot help their students find accommodation or craft accessible classrooms. But I can put myself in my students’ shoes, so to speak. This is especially true when it comes to issues like mental health or neurodivergence. A lot of these things pop up unexpectedly for first year students, who are dealing with adult life on their own for the first time. Depression and anxiety, along with other issues, can cause students to miss classes. Students can find themselves struggling with ADHD and managing their workload. While the resources on campus can help them with these issues, having a helpful professor can go a long way. And, being someone with severe mental health issues, being an autistic person, I can understand what it is like to have a brain that is different than the “norm.”

Being a disabled professor helps me remember that students have their needs just like I have mine, and we all need to be accommodated to have a successful classroom environment.

Colleen Etman

So I do my best to help these students. Obviously, the best case scenario is that the student comes to you and lets you know they’re struggling, and then you work together to make a game plan to help them keep up in class (and you can support them in their struggle). But that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the students are too overwhelmed, sometimes they’re just not comfortable talking about these kinds of things with their professors. So I try to build my classes in a helpful way. My courses don’t have an attendance policy or a late work policy. (I don’t advertise this fact – it’s no good if everyone takes advantage of this and I get 20 papers three weeks late – but there’s nothing indicating a penalty for too many absences or late work.) It’s my belief that no one should fail due to absences or late work if they show they are capable of doing the work, which is what’s actually important. Fun fact – I failed a class in undergrad because a professor had strict policies and wouldn’t accept late work/said I had too many absences in a semester where I was very ill, and now I’m almost done with a PhD! So these things clearly have no correlation with ability.

My own experiences as a student – like, admittedly, continued frustration with that professor – have greatly shaped my teaching style. But I have also learned a lot since starting in the FYE program here at USC. I started in Fall 2019, which means halfway through my second semester, we pivoted to online due to COVID. They gave us some materials, but we were basically just trying to survive. I, however, continued to teach online for two years, which was a real learning experience. I learned a lot about what it meant to build an accessible class when you weren’t even working in person with students. I tried to avoid videos, because accessible videos need captions, and the university does not provide a captioning service to instructors. A friend of mine paid for captioning software out of their own pocket! I painstakingly typed out a transcript for my own short videos on the rare occasions I used them. I also tried to use principles of universal design for my classes, which is a good strategy in general and helped me think more deeply about how I structure my classes.

Teaching at USC has been a real learning experience. Two years of online teaching helped me learn a lot about design, accessibility, and the usage of technology in these areas. But coming back to the classroom – a choice I did not make for myself, I’d add – helped me reconnect with students and their needs. Overall, being a disabled professor helps me remember that students have their needs just like I have mine, and we all need to be accommodated to have a successful classroom environment.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.