Beyond White Canes: Translating Experiential Learning into Student Support

Building on last week’s post, this week Xan Nowakowski explores importance of supporting and including students with different functional and ability statuses in our research and teaching.  

In my last post honoring White Cane Day, I shared some experiences from my childhood and adolescence that helped me to think about how people with blindness and visual impairment may experience life, as well as the broader importance of taking a proactive approach to accommodating students with disabilities. Today I’ll be sharing a story from early in my teaching career that highlights prejudices and misconceptions students with visual functioning differences often face, ways to address and remove those barriers, and benefits of creating inclusive environments for learning.

I got interested in issues of functioning and accommodation from a young age because my mother, a neuroscientist with multiple forms of visual impairment, helped me to learn about disability both within and outside of educational settings. My own experiences with loss of physical functioning later in life also contributed to this learning, and to my ability to put thinking into practice. These experiences also helped me to understand the rights and responsibilities outlined for students and educators in the Americans with Disabilities Act, first and foremost the idea that people are entitled to “reasonable accommodations”.

So when a graduate student I had just spent 10 minutes on the phone with about participating in a research project sounded hesitant and nervous the whole time we were on the phone, and then said “there’s something else I need to tell you” in a hesitant tone after I expressed enthusiasm for working with them, I certainly didn’t expect the next words out of their mouth to be “I’m blind”. I hadn’t assumed that they could or couldn’t see—this was the first time I’d ever spoken with them—but blindness didn’t seem like a reason to worry that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to participate in research. One of the best scientists I knew had significant vision impairment, and they worked in a highly visual field of study! I had friends with no light perception at all who were engineers, computer scientists, teachers, lawyers, artists, and so much more.

I stayed silent, waiting for the rest, waiting for them to tell me why their blindness might be a barrier to participating in my project that couldn’t be addressed through accommodations, turning the question over in my mind and coming up with nothing. Finally I said, “Okay…I’m sorry for sounding so obtuse here, but why would that impact my decision about working with you?” The silence that followed seemed to stretch on forever before they said “You don’t see that as an issue? I mean, I can’t see *at all*. I have no light perception.”

I didn’t want to dismiss their read on the situation, so I tried to affirm their concerns while also assuring them that they’d be fully accommodated and included. “No. Should I? I’m thinking about what kinds of challenges here could prevent you from participating, and I just don’t know how we wouldn’t be able to work around each one. If you need transportation, that’s easy—you can just ride with me when we go out into the field. If you need assistive technology that you don’t have already, I’ll get it for you or partner you with another student who can do the looking while you do the talking. If you need directions on how to do things that don’t require visual input, I’ll give them to you. And if I screw up any of this, you can be blunt with me about that and I’ll make any needed adjustments.”

My student sounded a little gobsmacked, but accepted my invitation for them and their guide dog to meet with me at my office and get started on the project. I then sent them an email with detailed directions using non-visual landmarks to help them navigate my office building—things like how many paces it takes me to get from the main door to the hallway from my office, when they’d hear a water fountain running, when they’d feel a vent blowing on their face, what the carpeting near my office would feel like beneath their feet. They showed up early, accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever who curled up at my feet while my student and I talked. We went over the key activities for the project, and talked through how we’d approach each one. They showed me their Braille translator, and all the features they liked to use on their computer to read screens and create documents. To this day, I have yet to work with a student who creates clearer or more concise PowerPoint presentations.

My student explained to me that this was a new experience for them—to have a professor show enthusiasm for working with a blind student. This troubled me deeply, and I asked them to promise that if they ever felt even a bit marginalized while working with me, they’d tell me. “If you’re left out in any way,” I stressed, “that’s my problem, not yours, and I have to take responsibility for it. It’s my job to think about what an educational experience is going to be like for you and plan accordingly.” They shook their head. “That’s just it,” they said. “You’re never going to make me feel left out. I already know that. You’re different. It’s like…well, those directions you gave me. It’s like you know how the world feels to me.” Then they paused. “Is that because you have visual impairments too?”

I thought about that for a moment. “No,” I said. “But my mother does. She’s a scientist who built her career on doing incredibly precise and detailed visual tracing of cells in the developing brain. She perceives light, and she uses some different technology than you do, but I learned enough from her to use my imagination. It’s not that hard to close my eyes and think about the input I’m getting from my other senses. And while I don’t have vision limitations myself, I’m losing function in my hands because of an autoimmune disease.” I asked if I could shake their hand, felt them flinch at the icy quality of my skin. “Cold, right? I don’t have much circulation in my fingers. Sometimes they won’t grip and sometimes they freeze up so I can’t use them at all. So I know what it’s like to have a disability and feel terrified that you won’t be able to finish school because of it.”

This seemed to put my student totally at ease, and we got down to real talk about our health conditions and the journeys we’ve taken to manage them. My student showed me one of their glass eyes, painted to exacting perfection. They told me about some of the absurd stereotypes about blindness they had encountered on campus. I thought the strangest one was the anger people had shown when my student wasn’t using a cane to navigate the sidewalks, as if it were their responsibility to wear a sign announcing to the world that they had no light perception. “I’m not about the cane. I have one, but I don’t use it much. Things are so much easier with my dog, so I bring her anywhere I can. And sometimes I just use my hands to navigate. It really depends on the situation and how I feel that day.”

We went over the survey quickly, and agreed to meet up at the formal training for student assistants in a couple of weeks. Having a non-sighted student participate in the project turned out to be a huge win for our team, as well as for their own confidence about what they could accomplish with their graduate degree. Other students didn’t miss a beat, making sure that walking paths in the classroom were clear while also not pushing any assistance that wasn’t desired. My student came prepared with Braille versions of each survey and showed them to the other research assistants. Partnering up wasn’t necessary when the time came to do data collection—we arranged piles of the two surveys at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock at my student’s station, and they used their Braille versions to read the surveys to anyone who requested help.

My student took the lead on developing presentations to share our data with the community. We’d been learning all summer about health challenges in Havana, a small town north of Tallahassee, and my student excelled in putting all of the data together in a community-friendly PowerPoint. They worked with our other graduate student, who had more quantitative training but did not enjoy qualitative analysis or making presentations nearly as much, to get some statistics for the slides. Both students were invited to speak to the community, but only one accepted—my sighted student hadn’t found their comfort zone yet with public speaking, so I let them take the lead on writing a research report instead while we went out and talked to area residents.

At the meetings, participants were enthralled by the Braille notes my student used to present our results and get feedback from the group. Several people mentioned that it made them feel more comfortable talking about their own health challenges to meet researchers with different functional limitations and chronic conditions. What was a disability in a technical sense became an opportunity in a social one—an indication that people could speak openly about their own experiences without shame or judgment. I had seen this time and again in my own work, but my student said it was a first for them. “It had better not be the last,” I noted. “Your professors and employers have a responsibility to accommodate you for any task that you can safely do.”

It has been a few years since this particular student studied on campus, with or without a white cane. But we have many other students with different types of visual impairments, all of whom go about navigating the campus a bit differently. If you’ve met one person with vision challenges, you’ve met that one person, and you probably met them under a specific set of circumstances where they approached tasks a certain way. Maybe you didn’t know what the world looked like to them, or if it looked like anything at all. But if you asked yourself that question, and really took the time to think about the answer, you performed the most basic task of accommodation and inclusion. As more evidence of that sort of thinking appears on our campus each year, we all have new opportunities to take that thinking to a higher level, and ask ourselves what we can do better in the future.


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