But it’s NOT the same

Dave Hingsburger recently had a very nice column about the pros and cons of labelling. He made some very fine points, including the key idea that, “the issue is how we value the difference that is labeled.” This reminded me of something similarly related, which is how we value the accommodations. With many sorts of disabilities, we have ways of getting around the internal disabling factors, and the environmental handicapping factors. Some of those ways involve assistive devices (ADs), also known as assistive technology (AT).

One of the problems we run into, sometimes unexpectedly so, is that our ADs do not “fix” the problem and make it go away. This is discouraging for the person who is newly diagnosed or newly treated for an issue, and who hoped that simply by getting some snazzy piece of equipment, everything would “be back to normal”. Well, no. Being disabled is the “new normal”. Arguing for, with, and at one’s assorted pieces of equipment is yet another layer added to our lives. Read the rest of this entry »

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Animal Farm

Yes, that “Animal Farm”, the book by George Orwell. That’s what I was reminded of, or rather, I was reminded of the famous quote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Painting walls certainly gives one time to think, and I was stuck on the annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Jerry Lewis is the comic who for years has been the host of the annual MD Telethon broadcast on US television. The program itself is designed to be a real tear-jerker, prompting people to send in money out of pity and guilt and good intentions. Lots of people hate the program. We hate the paternalistic attitudes that perpetuate the whole medical model of disability, and reinforce the warped picture the equates disabled people as helpless, hopeless victims needing cures and charity, rather than accommodation and equal social standing and social rights.

In the negatively stereotypical telethon world, the disabled person can only be brave by quietly clinging to others and not advocating for themselves, by staying hidden out the way and not asking for equal access, and by cultivating “hope” that someday they can be “cured” to become normal, thus regaining their status as a full member of society and become a real person.

Well, medical cures and preventions are well and good, but are nowhere near soon, and what people really need are more practical things, the equipment and accommodations and acceptance into general society that will let them live their lives. No one wants to put their life on “hold” waiting for some possibly non-existent, or distant future mythical-magical cure. No one wants to be stuck at home, much less in an institution, and thought of as a horrible burden, a non-functioning person who has nothing to contribute to their family, a non-working person who has nothing to contribute to their workplace, a non-sexual person who has nothing to contribute to their spouse, or a non-adult person who has nothing to contribute to their children.

Jerry Lewis plays up the pity card heavily. I’ve previously discussed the various social problems created by pity, so I won’t go repeating myself on that score. What choked me up (in disgust, not in sadness) was his “half a person” quote. It originates from the September 2, 1990 issue of Parade magazine, from the article titled, “What If I Had Muscular Dystrophy?”:

When I sit back and think a little more rationally, I realize my life is half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person … and get on with my life.

Ick. That’s when the Animal Farm parallel hit me:

All humans are people, but some humans are more people than others.

Half a person. Not a real person. Not a full citizen in society, but someone second-class. Forever dependent, focused upon all the things they cannot do, always left out. And why are people left out? Not because they’re disabled, but because of the entrenched bigotry against disabled people that permeates our cultures. Simple things that should be ordinary, practical, sensible things, are instead viewed as horrible hardships upon everyone else. Problems are seen in a warped world-view of false dichotomies: either the person cannot do something the normal way, or they get cured and then they’ll be able to do things. There’s no accommodated way of doing things in that unrealistic story.

I can’t stand to watch the program. I can’t stand the crass exploitation, seeing children (and their families) used as tragi-cute pawns for pathos. I can’t stand to hear Jerry Lewis snivelling. I can’t stand to see the whole routine repeated year after year after year, the horribly treacly music, the pleas to “save Jerry’s kids”. The program is a tear-jerker, and Jerry Lewis is a jerk.

“It is an uncomfortable truth, in social work, in government activity, and in charitable endeavors, that actions which are intended to help a certain group of people may actually harm them.”
~Laura Hershey

Accommodating the Normals

In your place of business, educational institution, or public service area, you will have to make certain accommodations for the “normal” (“Temporarily Able-Bodied”) patrons. (Please note that within Normal culture, it is considered appropriate to refer to them as “normal people” rather than as “people with normality”.) Normal people will usually succeed in schooling, and will apply for jobs that they can do, presuming that they are given accommodations. These needs are diverse, and such accommodations include, but are not limited to, the following items: Read the rest of this entry »

Mitigating measures

“Ms Andrea, please explain to the Court how being homosexual substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

“What?”

“Your case to the Court is a discrimination case, claiming the defendant made homophobic remarks. Please describe to the court how homosexual you are.”

“I … what, no. I never said I’m a lesbian, or bisexual, or even heterosexual. I’ve never made any kind of formal statement about my sexual orientation. This isn’t about whether or not I’m gay. This is about the slurs, threats, and homophobic remarks at school. It’s about sexual harassment.”

“Ms Andrea, do not waste the Court’s time. You cannot make a case for discrimination unless you can prove that you are a member of a group that has been discriminated against. Now please explain to the court how being homosexual substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

This is satire, of the dark sort. I have never really filed a court complaint. My actual time in a court process is limited to paying a minor speeding ticket (lesson learned: cruise control is a good thing).

I have been at that ugly social place (repeatedly so) where complaining about homophobic remarks simply sets one up for further sexual harassment, because everyone assumes that complaining about such means that you are gay, and that because you’re gay you “deserve” whatever abuse happens.

The point to this bit of theatre of the absurd is that a person need not be a particular sort of person to have been harassed or discriminated against. Read the rest of this entry »

“ON HOLIDAY!” : Disability Blog Carnival #20

Ah, the crowd’s starting to build up … the hurry-up-and-wait part of events makes me nervous, and there’s only so many times I need to check my To Do list, or line up the dishes and flatware on the serving buffet (but look, I lined up the napkins in rainbow order!)

Over in the bandstand, Shiva of Biodiverse Resistance is putting the final tweaks on the “Top 10 Unintentional Disability Anthems”. I had the pleasure of listening to audioclips to all of these on iTunes, and found some new pieces I really like. Shiva has eclectic tastes in music, so the selections are sure to have something for most everyone.

“Ooh shiny! A hummingbird on the hummingbird mint …”

Ah, the crowd is filling in, passing through the buffet and staking out spots in the shade or a place to soak up some of the abundant warm sunshine. “Do try some of the brownies — I got the recipe from Gluten-Free Girl and they are fabulous — even if (unlike me) you don’t normally eat gluten-free food.” After the usual nattering about trifles, we finally settle down to the topic of the day. If there’s a constant about being on holiday, it’s that one frequently needs to take a vacation after having taken a vacation — we need to rest up from having fun. Or trying to have fun. Or trying to get to the place to have fun. Or trying to find something you can eat at the fun place. Or funning with trying people… Read the rest of this entry »

The pleasure of your company is requested

Zephyr’s getting the Disability Blog Carnival #19 set up over at Arthritic Young Thing, and it promises to be exciting because it’s about SEX!

So wow, I get to follow that. That’s about as great a slot as getting to do an hour-long presentation in a warm, dark auditorium right after lunch when the audience is stuffed full of turkey sandwiches (ooh, tryptophan, zzzz…) Hey, I’ve done that gig. And I tripped spectacularly en route to the lectern (tripping over nothing, because I’m just so talented that way). And then the AV equipment didn’t work at first. And I was coming down with the flu. But public speaking is still theatre of sorts, and I joke about my clumsiness and the malfunctioning equipment (“This stuff never happens to you all, right?”) and the show goes on, because this is What We Do. They even laughed at the jokes, bless them.

But it’s time to take a break from work! I selected “On Holiday” (on vacation) for my Disability Blog Carnival theme, Read the rest of this entry »

Operators Are Standing By

I heard a phrase the other month that summed up a lot of my operating abilities. I was listening to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast #93, (from May 3rd, 2007). About 40 minutes into the show they had an interview with Bug Girl concerning Colony Collapse Disorder. One of the hosts (I believe it was Dr Steven Novella) summarized bee navigation abilities by stating, “They’re very precise, but they’re easily confused.”

Yeah, I get confused. The world is a confusing place, and bad design just makes it so much worse. I may at times be very precise in how I approach the things I need to do, but that doesn’t always help.

It’s not just me. Everyone has processing blips; some of us just have them a lot more often than others. But in any regard, this is why our tools, the machinery and electronics of our lives, needs to be better designed. Poor design just makes so much stress damn unnecessary! Crappy design takes a lot of things out of the realm of accessibility — people simply cannot use things, people cannot get to places, people cannot do the things they need to do.

When human beings cannot operate well (or at all) in human environments, it is not the fault of the people, it’s bad design. And bad design is just so damn unnecessary.

Possibly one of the most fabulous qualities of computers is not just that they can do so many different functions, that they can be configured to enable us in so many different ways, that they can aid in communication, but because Read the rest of this entry »

WAN-Foraging Behaviour of Migrant Geek Populations

You may have seen people wandering around railstations or airports or other public areas with open laptops in hand, searching for wireless signal to access the internet. I always thought that would be a neat demographic study to do.

Right now I’m one of them; “teh internets is broke” at home, and yesterday the cable service company told us they wouldn’t be out to fix it for another 48 hours or so.  No small surprise, considering that the US ranks 11th for internet penetration — it’s hardly an efficient or consistent utility, being composed of numerous companies, all with their own combinations of grids, pricing schemes and services.  So why do we have no access at home?  I’ve no idea; we’re not suffering from any severe geo-meteorlogical events, and I’m not way out in the boonies (the hinterland, the bush, the back country).

So here I am using free time on a college terminal, because despite their LAN sending out good signal, I cannot rouse their router’s attention anywhere on campus.  No, it’s not my laptop, which has worked with the college’s systems before, and worked just fine at the public library last night — however, I’m not fond of the public library because their wireless is glacially slow.  The result of all this is not having my laptop files for making blog posts.

Except of course, whatever just spontaneously comes to mind from a public-access keyboard, as I sit here kvetching.  Gah.

Is it CC?

Description: The Closed Captioning symbol, a black frame in a horizontal rectangle, with a white television screen shape inside, displaying a pair of letter Cs.

This icon is used in North America to denote television programming that carried the accessory closed captioning signal. (I like to give artists credit, so I’ll mention that it was designed by Jack Foley, a graphics designer for that closed captioning pioneer, public television station WGBH of Boston, Massachusetts.) I’m pleased to see this icon on video boxes or in a television guide by a show listing, because it means the program is captioned, i.e. subtitled. Captions aren’t exactly the same as subtitles, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Captions also describe other important auditory information, such as the type of background mood music, that a phone is ringing, there’s a knock on the door, or putting a musical quarter-note symbol by the words to denote that someone is singing, rather than speaking. The captions provide necessary clues to understanding the activity onscreen.

So … who cares? Read the rest of this entry »

The Privilege of Being Clouted By Cabbage

Yesterday I went to the grocery store.

I wandered up and down the aisles, repeating a few aisles in my (typically ADHD-forgetful) journey to fetch the items on my list (and I still forgot a couple of items, despite using a list). I selected various pieces of produce and only had one head of cabbage leap from its cruciferous ziggurat to hurl itself at my feet. (I was examining a pineapple at the time – what is it with kamikaze produce?) I paid for my groceries, uneasily navigating volleys of largely meaningless chit-chat from an exuberantly loquacious checker. I loaded the bags of groceries into my vehicle, and drove home. Aren’t you thrilled.

Doing all that was possible because I am privileged to do so.

Privilege means Read the rest of this entry »

International ^DISABLED Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is: “Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls”

People with disabilities have a variety of difficulties across their lives, not just from the intrinsic problems associated with the disability, but also the handicaps they face socially. Disabled people are much less likely to finish secondary school, even less likely to go on to further education in university, have more difficulties acquiring jobs compared to their equally qualified non-disabled peers, and therefore generally earn less. Around the world, women in general also are much less likely to finish secondary school, even less likely to go on to further education in university, have more difficulties acquiring jobs compared to their equally qualified non-disabled peers, and therefore generally earn even less.

Not surprisingly disabled women fare worse than disabled men. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. According to a report by the Independent Living Institute, disabled women:

  • Data referring to the E.U. shows that percentage of employment in men without disability is 76% versus 36% in disabled men. Regarding women, the percentages vary from 55% in non-disabled to 25% in disabled women.
  • Studies done on specific groups (autistic, for example) show that they are more inclined to remain in institutions for longer periods of time than men.
  • There are a lot of barriers that make access to birth control and family planning very difficult, such as physical barriers, communication barriers etc.
  • In hospitals disabled women are used as models for trainee doctors, without previously asking them for their permission. Videos and slides are taken of disabled women to be used as teaching aids without any control over their use.
  • There are permanent debates on the role women are supposed to play, and that assigned to disabled persons. As a result, while women in general are pressured by society to motherhood, disabled women are forced into not having children, and this many times leads to unauthorised sterilisation, or denial of adoption on the basis of the “incapacity of the mother” to take care of them adequately.

In theme with this year’s International Women’s Day, there’s also the issue of violence against women. Again, women who are disabled fare worse off than those who are not. Furthermore, it is even more difficult for women with disabilities to recognise, prevent or stop such problems.

The report goes on to describe the various kinds of violence that happen to women with disabilities. These are described as Active Violence (physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse) and Passive Violence (physical neglect, emotional neglect). These can be manifested in the following ways:

Physical abuse:
Any direct or indirect action that can damage the life, welfare or health of disabled women, provoking pain, unnecessary suffering or health deficiency.
Manifestations:
* Aggressions in different parts of the body
* Unjustified administration of drugs.
* Restrictions of mobility.
Alert Signs:
* To be found in sedative or nervous conditions.
* Motor dysfunction not due to their disability.
* Signs of physical violence: marks in wrists and ankles, fractures, bites, internal damages, burns, etc.
* Detriment in their remains of physical capacity.

Emotional abuse:
Behaviour model that results from damage to the welfare and emotional balance of a disabled woman.
Manifestations:
* Isolation, prohibiting or limiting the access to means of communication (phone, mail..), to information and to keep in contact with other relatives and neighbours.
* Oral cruelty, by means of insults, constant criticism, making fun of their body, punishments in the presence of others.
* Over protection.
* Speaking, deciding or giving opinions in her name.
* Intimidation, and /or emotional blackmail.
Alert Signs:
* Depression.
* Communication and interrelation difficulties.
* Insecurity, and low self-esteem.

Sexual abuse:
Actions that are a sexual aggression towards disabled women, and can produce physical or emotional harm.
Manifestations:
* Rape.
* Sexual vexation or humiliation.
Alert Signs:
* Marks or/and injuries in genitals.
* Fear to relate with certain people.
* Undesired pregnancies.
* Venereal diseases.

Economical abuse:
Actions that pursue the loss of control and rights on properties, money or family shared inheritances. The use of the image of a disabled woman against her will, to gain money for third persons, is also considered economic abuse.
Manifestations:
* The use of disabled girls or women in mendacity.
* Employing disabled women in poorly paid jobs usually linked to clandestine employment.
* Limiting the access to information and management of personal economy.
* The use of money as a sanction.
* The family denies the access to external economic resources (jobs, grants..).
Alert Signs:
* Depending too much on others.
* Little expectations regarding herself and her personal or professional projection.

Physical neglect:
It is understood as such, the denial or privation of the basic aspects to keep the body in good shape, in relation with health, hygiene and image.
Manifestations:
* Negligence in feeding.
* Personal carelessness.
* Neglecting hygienic measures.
* Lack of supervision.
Alert Signs:
* Malnutrition.
* Frequent illnesses not caused by disability.
* Inadequate cloths regarding sex, climate, and the persons’ handicaps.
* Dirty clothes.
* Long periods of time without supervision.
* Physical problems worsen due to lack of treatment.

Emotional neglect:

Those actions that deny or deprive attention, consideration and respect towards disabled women.
Manifestations:
* Ignoring their existence.
* Giving no value to their opinion.
* Feeling ashamed about them.
Alert Signs:
* Lack of interaction.
* No motivation concerning their personal development.
* Scarce or no participation in family or social activities.

The study came up with the following conclusions:

  • Many disabled women see themselves as subjects of maltreatment and abuse, while society ignores the problem.
  • Many disabled women do not see themselves subjects of violence, because they consider these situations habitual in their lives and associated with disability.
  • Disability is a risk factor when suffering abuse and maltreatment situations, which added to the fact of being a woman, increases the risk to higher rates than those of the violence suffered by women in general.
  • Women with sensorial, learning, and communication problems, are more likely to suffer abuse and violence.
  • Not having the traditional female roles assigned contributes to lower self-esteem and increases vulnerability, elements that favour becoming an object of violence.
  • Violence against disabled women shares common characteristics with the female collective, but has specific characteristics as well.
  • Most professionals in charge of counselling and interventions in maltreatment to women ignore that many disabled women are in the same situation. Either because information does not reach them, or because they do not typify as violent acts those they believe associated to disability.
  • Depending on others to cope in daily life increases the risk of being objects of violent actions. This risk is believed lower when personal assistance is given with former professional training and psychological aptitude.
  • Violence against disabled women has more to do with the fact it is considered an extenuating circumstance that these actions are perpetrated against “a faulty being”, than on using a woman’s body as a demonstration of power and control.

The report goes on to describe specific details from several countries. Near the end, the authors describe some of the difficulties that disabled women face when trying to extricate themselves from abusive situations:

It is extremely difficult for any abused woman to leave a situation of abuse. A woman is hit by a husband or a partner an average of 35 times before she calls the police. Battering undermines self-esteem and can make a woman feel she is somehow responsible for her own abuse. For a woman with a disability, this situation is even more difficult. She may be dependent on her abuser for affection, communication and financial, physical and medical support. If she reports the abuse, she may risk poverty and loss of housing and support. She may fear she will not be heard or believed is she speaks out. She may face further violence, institutionalisation, or loss of her children if she seeks help. She may not have access to information about existing support services for victims of violence. Even if she has this information, many sources of support may not be accessible. She may not be able to contact the police or women’s shelters because they do not have communication devices as telecommunication devices for the deaf. She may not be able to physically leave her situation because of a lack of accessible transportation. Her lack of options may leave her feeling so powerless and despairing that suicide seems the only viable choice. And if she seeks help in dealing with suicidal thoughts or attempts, she is unlikely to find counselling which takes account of her own reality. And so she is left isolated and possibly suicidal.

Just as the problems are multifaceted, so are the solutions. The report recommends:

  • Abusive behaviour needs to be acknowledged as a serious social and in some cases criminal problem, rather than being considered a private matter.
  • Protocols need to be developed for institutions to screen potential employees and volunteers.
  • Protocols need to be developed to address the abuse that occurs in institutional settings.
  • Community living alternatives need to be made available for women with disabilities.
  • Courses need to be made accessible and available to women with disabilities (in self-defence, assertiveness training, and sex education).
  • Appropriate suicide consoling which meets the special needs of women with disabilities needs to be made available.
  • Transition houses and other existing support services need to be made accessible, and frontline workers in shelter facilities need to be sensitised to the needs of women with disabilities.
  • Women with disabilities need to be hired to provide this training and to work in these centres and
  • Women in all communities need to work together develop a co-ordinated approach to dealing with the abuse of all women.

Testing, 1, 2, 3 …

The other week I was typing math tests, generally a task as dull as dusting door lintels. But this time I was enthused because I was re-typing the tests in order to make them more accessible.

You see, the old tests were done in a small 10-point font, with the arithmetic problems set up in the traditional manner of stacking them in long columns and aligned rows. Many of our students have a variety of learning disabilities, and I suspected the very layout of the tests was aggravating some of the visual and/or graphomotor difficulties.

Firstly I increased the numerals to a 14-point font. This is much closer to natural handwriting size, so it’s easier for the students to write their own numbers under the columns of existing digits. For dysgraphic students, anything that gives them more room to write is beneficial. Therefore I also increased the amount of space between the problems, both within the rows and between them. This way there would be sufficient room for working out the calculations, especially the long division problems.

Another reason for giving extra room between the rows was that I wanted to avoid making the students squeeze their answers around smudged calculations. Nor did I want to have them transfer their answers to a separate page, which could incur errors involving number transpositions, correspondence between the problem and its specifically numbered answer blank, or some of the answers not even getting transferred over.

Next I put the problem numbers (enumeration) on different lines than the problems, so there would be less confusion about which was which. In contrast, the operations signs (plus, minus, multiply or divide) were moved closer to the problems to reduce any confusion about what the student was to do.

Another important step was to arrange the individual problems so they were not stacked directly above and below each other. This reduces some of the spatially-related difficulties some students have, and prevents confusion about which number is involved in a given problem. It’s too easy to pick up the wrong number or even skip a problem when all the digits are piled up in long wriggling stacks. Offsetting the problems helps isolate each one in a larger area of white-space.

The combination of offset problems plus using a larger font resulted in using two rows for five problems, rather than just one row. In turn, the tests usually grew longer by a page. I don’t consider that to be a problem; there’s a time for “saving trees” (conserving paper) and a time when that is a false economy because it creates other problems. When photocopying the tests, I did not copy on both front and back. It’s too easy to miss a chunk of problems on a test when they are “hidden” on the back. Plus, having blank page backs automatically gives blank space for any additional little calculations that the students need to do.

These mathematics tests don’t have much in the way of worded questions, although for those that were included, I doubled the length of the answer blanks so they would be roomy enough for handwritten responses.

When laying out tests with worded questions, there are some other techniques that can make test-taking less difficult on the practical end. Many things are good common sense, but we have to be aware of them to be sure of including them. These include methods such as:

• In matching questions, have the descriptions in column one and terms in column two on the same page (no run-ons to another page);
• Use numbers for one column in the matching and letters for the other column;
• Spell out the words True – False to be circled (rather than the student writing T or F or t or f and letting the grader guess which was written down);
• Avoid the use of double-negatives in true-false or multiple-choice questions;
• Use capitals in matching or multiple choice (A, B, C, D, E) instead of lower case (a, b, c, d, e) that can be confusing to the student or to the grader (a – d, b – d, or c – e can look similar), and be sure to give a blank to write the answer upon.

(As you might guess, this particular grader has her own difficulties reading small font sizes, visually tracking numbers, or sometimes distinguishing certain letters.)

The benefit to all these various techniques is that they help all the students, not only those who have particular disabilities that have been diagnosed and for whom accommodations have been established. Other students who have undiagnosed problems, marginal problems, those who are simply tired or sick, and even those in top form will all benefit from having tests that are easier to read. (Ditto the teaching staff!)

This is the joy of universal design for learning: make as much of the material as accommodating as possible for a wide group of students, and you will have fewer specific changes to make for individual students, plus everyone will be able to use the material more easily.

After all, our end goal is to assess the students’ acquisition of knowledge, not their ability to decipher tests..

Bibliomeme

Mum-is-thinking tagged me to answer a book survey. My answers are a motley collection, and I think that motley collections are always the most interesting. I’m guessing that people like to read these kinds of meme-tag surveys because they either want to hear how others have loved the same books they have, or else want to hear about books they had not yet (or possibly would not have) encountered, but would also enjoy.

One book that changed my life
I’ll have to take this is “one of many” rather than as “the one with the greatest impact” because surely different books have had done this at different stages in my life. There are a lot of contenders for books that were the first (if not always the best) to open up my knowledge-base to completely new fields of understanding, such as those on AD/HD or autism. Those are valuable in that regard, but more important are the books that give a different kind of insight, looking behind social paradigms to critically analyse the how and why of human interaction.

For the way that humans interact with their environments, Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things looks at the problems that bad design causes people, and how people assume that their difficulties are considered to be their fault, rather than bad design. He touches but lightly on the issues of handicap accessibility, and I don’t think he mentions Universal Design at all, but the central message is still the same. My inner geek adores good, useful, imaginative and æsthetic design, and it drives me nutz when tools, machines or environments are badly designed.

For the way that humans interact with medical & emotional health care providers, Paula Kamen’s All In My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, And Only Slightly Enlightening Headache that describes some of the problems with the medical models of psychology, such as being a problem patient rather than a person with a problem, or the need to find “cures” for everything when instead one can be helped and be healed without being cured.

Strong messages from both of these books.

One book that you’ve read more than once
Who doesn’t have a comfily-tattered set of J.R.R. Tolkien’s four-volume Middle Earth trilogy? (Yes, trilogy means three books, but The Hobbit is part of the Lord of the Rings, and science fiction & fantasy is rife with trilogies composed of more than three volumes.) For my favorite re-read when stuck abed with a nasty virus, I really enjoy Anne McCaffrey & S.M. Stirling’s The City Who Fought. It’s a fun piece of adult science fiction with the well-drawn characters and nitty-gritty techy details and swashbuckling action that make for a engaging read.

One book you’d want on a desert island
Most people like to pack either something really long, or else an extensive practical reference book. But I don’t think that I’d want to be stuck with some interminably long piece of fiction, no matter how well-written, and I’ve probably read enough references over the years that I could eventually solve any manner of functional issues. What I want would be a huge book of blank pages, so I could keep a journal of thoughts about various things. It’s often difficult for me to work out mental explorations without a written medium. I’ll remember or figure out the right knots for lashing together poles, but being able to compose my thoughts is integral to my equalibrium.

One book that made you laugh
Terry Pratchett’s Mort was the first Discworld novel I ever read, and Death is still my favorite character, possibly because he’s so practical and the human world doesn’t always make sense to him. Plus, he talks in ALL CAPS. Soul Music is damn funny, too. I love the puns and unexpected turns in Pratchett’s books.

One book that made you cry
Ebbing & Gammon’s General Chemistry (sixth edition). The authors of this uninspired, heavy tome had an interminable number of equations to solve. I made it through four semesters of chemistry and sweated through this volume for half of them.

One book you wish you had written
Actually, I’m still compiling thoughts for my next book. I don’t tend to dwell on wish-I-had’s.

One book you’re currently reading
I never read just one book at a time, which explains why it takes me so long to finish anything! I just finished Joseph P. Shapiro’s No Pity. I’m furthest into Majia Nadesan’s most interesting Constructing Autism, which I will finish as soon as I remember where the hell I left the book laying about.

Currently my bedside pile contains: Thomas Skrtic’s Behind Special Education, Alfie Kohn’s What Does It Mean to Be Educated?, Kegan & Lahey’s How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communications, Fisher & Shapiro’s beyond reason, and Walter Kauffmann’s translation of Basic Writings of Nietzsche (maybe after finishing the book I’ll be able to spell N’s name without looking it up every time). I had just started on Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene and then my daughter took it back with her to college; bad girl. By default I’m also reading Hardman, Drew & Egan’s Human Exceptionality: School, Community and Family because it’s my current textbook.

One book you’ve been meaning to read
The future pile-by-my-bed: Daniel C. Dennett’s freedom evolves, John H. Holland’s Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (I think that one may take a study-buddy to gain the most benefit), the Routledge Critical Thinker’s series editions about Gilles Deleuze, Jaques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, Eli Maor’s e: the Story of a Number, and David Darling’s Universal Book of Mathematics. Doubtless there’s more, but that’s what’s on that section of my bookcase.

Tag five other book lovers
Anna, Catana, David, Liam, and Whomever wishes they’d been tagged but felt like they needed some kind of “official” sanction to simply write and post a list!

Hindered by Success

The favor of your reply is requested.

The other year when I was giving the annual Inservice training to the other university tutors, I asked them how many had flunked a test or a class. Only one person of the dozen-plus raised his hand, and he too had some kind of learning disability/difference. I was amazed, and thought to myself, Is life really this smooth for everyone else?

All the other tutors were there as tutors because they really knew their stuff, they were good at it, and it was easy for them. None of the others knew the panic of not being able to do something today that they were able to do a few days ago, or not being able to retrieve knowledge they knew, or not understanding test questions correctly (and thus providing the wrong sorts of answers). Hardly anyone knew what it felt like to fail, and how crushing it was to work very hard, yet still not achieve.

I also had a classmate in a College Teaching course who worked as a Teaching Assistant, and who confessed that she got really impatient and annoyed with students who had trouble in the subject; it was easy for her, and she couldn’t understand how it wouldn’t be for anyone else! Oy.

Of course, for tutors they want people who have a good command of the concepts and details of a subject, and who can communicate those well. But they also need people who are able to be flexible in how they explain things, and who are empathetic with their tutees.

Sometimes the tutees seem unprepared. But we have to assume the tutee wants to improve; why else would either person be there? Asking the tutee, “Why aren’t you prepared? Don’t you want to get better at this?” is patronizing. It’s easy to mis-attribute the lack of progress to laziness or similar moral failing.

Tutees may be “unprepared” because they have gotten “stuck” at some fundamental level. For instance, they may have not completed the assigned reading because they are not understanding terms, or there are different definitions of familiar words that are specific to the particular discipline, so the text makes no sense even thought they “know” the terms in some other context.

Oft times our students cannot pinpoint just where in the process they are having problems. These are the students who will swear up and down that they are doing everything the right way, but aren’t getting the results that are supposed to happen. Insisting that the student merely needs to “try harder” is profoundly unhelpful. It’s not a question of how hard one is working, but rather how one is working.

Some of those students are the ones who are really smart and have mostly skated through primary and secondary school on sheer intelligence, and who have not developed many study skills. Or, they may be trying to use the wrong study methods because they’ve been told that they are “supposed to” study with flashcards, even though they don’t really learn well with that method. Many students need help developing new organizational or planning approaches to handle the greater or more complex work loads.

They may also have processing difficulties that are not readily apparent. For example, a student may spend so much of their cognitive energies listening to a lecture, remaining focused despite distractions, understanding the auditory input, and/or making sense of the concepts as they are presented, that they are unable to retain the information in their long-term memory, or to be able to simultaneously take effective notes. Despite having attended very carefully, later on they will not be able to explain what the lecture was about, or have useful notes to refer to. But this lack of “results” isn’t from a lack of effort; indeed, that student may be working twice as hard as their peers.

This is profoundly frustrating, and at this point the students either turn the frustration inwards and consider themselves failures because they are stupid at a subject, or else turn it outwards and insist the teachers are making things impossible just to flunk some of the students, or that the subject itself is useless. In cases like these, the student needs help figuring out how they learn best, and how they can advocate for themselves to have access to the material in a way that works best with their individual learning style, and thus be able to work with their strengths.

Differences in learning styles is hardly a novel concept, yet there are instructors, those professors, graduate teaching assistants and tutors, for whom this idea is mostly theoretical. The professor who is an auditory, sequential learner and who did well during their own school days when taught by the lecture method, will likely just lecture to their own classes. To them it’s a “natural” way of teaching and learning. Obviously there are students who are “smart” enough to “get” the content this way. It’s “proven” because it’s traditional. Writing a few key terms on the board and projecting an illustration or two in an hour’s monologue seems like sufficient effort for visual learners. Once again, the instructors are so personally successful that they can’t truly understand why others aren’t.

Students get tutoring because they are unable to learn subjects the way the subjects are taught, or because they have great difficulty doing so. They seek out tutors because they want to do better, not because they are lazy. Each of us has different tasks that find easy or difficult, and it behooves us to remember that these are different for each person.

At this point, I’d like to be able to explore this dilemma with other members of the blogosphere, so we can all improve our understanding. My question to you is:

What sorts of teaching and learning methods work best for you, and what kinds of situations have you found that particularly hindered your ability to learn? Feel free to provide concrete examples, as people have been through a variety of schools in different times and places, and good understanding needs context.

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