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How Disability Drives Innovation and Empowers Students

How Disability Drives Innovation and Empowers Students, Dr. M. Leona Godin, writer, performer, and educator
By: Dr. M. Leona Godin, writer, performer, and educator

Dr. Leona Godin, the celebrated writer of “There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness,” recently presented to hundreds of ACT team members from across the organization as well as external colleagues and educators as part of the ACT Equity Speakers Series. Dr. Godin spoke about her unique experience with blindness and how to become a more supportive ally, advocate, and champion for inclusive design. Watch the recording at the bottom of this page.

Because of a degenerative eye disease, I’ve lived on just about every notch of the sight-blindness spectrum. When I first began going blind, I was alone. Now, thanks in no small part to social media, I have a huge blind network. Like me, a number of these friends lost the ability to read standard print early on, and only one of them is fluent in Braille.

Braille is the only way a blind or deafblind person can read silently or aloud, with one’s own voice, and at one’s own pace. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to insist visually impaired students use their eyes for as long as possible, even if doing so slows down their reading and their education generally.

The preference for doing things as close to the way sighted people do them is detrimental to learning, and it’s part of a systemic problem: ocularcentrism.

Ocularcentrism is the unconscious bias that ranks sight as the most important sense — often far above the rest. It privileges sight, sighted people, and sighted ways of doing things. It is a form of ableism and leads to discrimination.

Ocularcentrism also affects blind teachers. I have a friend who is working in the public school district of a major U.S. city, and she is facing so much discrimination that she may not be able to continue doing what she loves to do, and what she is very good at.

We all know the importance of role models — those who share our identities and those who do not. If blind teachers are discriminated against then all the accommodations we offer students ring hollow: They can learn, but when they pursue careers, they have only disappointment to look forward to. This speaks to a shameful statistic: 70% of blind people are unemployed or underemployed.

I believe the only way to dismantle ocularcentrism is to embrace blindness as a facet of sensory diversity. Here in New York City, where I live and write, we have a vibrant blind community. One of the centers of blind culture is the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library in Chelsea. Although it caters to blind and low-vision patrons, it’s part of the New York Public Library and is open to everyone.

The library offers a diverse range of classes and boasts a stunning array of technology — including 3-D printers — in the Dimensions Lab, which is headed by blind-tech guru Chancey Fleet. I volunteer in the Saturday morning Braille group, where I sometimes work with two sighted Pratt Institute design students, who are excited to learn Braille as part of their sensory literacy. Their enthusiasm in coming back week after week suggests that Braille could be taught in schools as part of a sensory literacy curriculum, in which multisensory learning experiences help students understand and interpret information coming through various senses.

If more people were introduced to Braille at a young age, we might get more teachers of the visually impaired to teach it instead of being afraid of it. Also, we may find that just because a student has functioning eyes, they may not be a visual learner. I was interviewed by a radio host, who confessed that he is not a very visual person although his eyes work perfectly well. Hence, he’s in radio.

Blind writer and scholar Georgina Kleege is the author of many books including “More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art.” At an academic conference I attended, she began her keynote like this: “If I were speaking to a room full of blind and visually impaired people, I would not need this PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint is an accommodation for sighted people or, more precisely, sight-dependent people.”

In other words, PowerPoint is accessibility. Accessibility is everywhere for humans who live and work in the built environment. A quick example: computer screens. Computers don’t need screens to function any more or less than they need Braille displays. These are points of access to the inner workings of zeroes and ones.

Blind children and adults should never feel bad about demanding accessibility and accommodations. Accessibility and accommodations are what humans do. And it’s not always obvious what points of access will be useful to whom. Something might begin as disability related and get co-opted by other groups.

Dictation technology is an example of how disability drives innovation. When I was learning how to use text-to-speech software way back in the ’90s, there were dyslexic students in the computer lab who were using speech-to-text software. Dictation software is now used by so many people every day — from doctors and nurses to anyone who struggles with the tiny flat keys of their smart phones.

Inclusive design can only be empowered when it is understood to move in at least two directions, but more is even better. When mainstream culture thinks in terms of letting blind people in, instead of having blind people let the sighted in, we will never be able to achieve anything even approaching equality in school or after.

Access and inclusive design don’t have to be boring boxes that you check. They can be exciting sites for creativity in the classroom and out of it. For example, image description can be educational and fun. Visit Alt Text as Poetry for tips.

To be truly powerful, inclusivity cannot be just a one-way street. It needs to sparkle with the desire to share ideas, experience, and knowledge. Disability drives innovation, but it also enriches the store of human intelligence and culture.

Watch Dr. Godin's ACT Equity Speakers Series presentation: