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Ivory Towers and Stone Walls: How to talk to professors about your disability

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

By Will Butler, former College Success Program Advisory Panel Member

I'll never forget the puzzled silences of my professors - the moments of mutual confusion we shared, at least once a semester, trying to figure out how to solve the challenges presented by my vision. Having a conflict or tension with a professor is not right or wrong, but a normal result of being an outlier in an assembly-line system. Being an outlier has positive and negative trade offs. The biggest thing I learned in college is that the way you talk about your disability can help or hurt you, and result in your biggest failures or successes. This is true in all social settings, but today I just want to focus on how to talk to your professors.

Here are a few types of professors you might encounter this year at school. These are real experiences I had at UC Berkeley just a few years ago, with the names changed to protect the innocent or, as it were, guilty.

First, there was Mr. Stonewall: Mr. Stonewall viewed himself as a high intellectual. He only interacted with brilliant students and those who didn't meet his standards mostly just learned to hang back and try to stay afloat. He was fond of the Socratic method and practiced a hard-knock, tough-love school of lesson-learning for the urban theory course that he was famous for. In my case, Mr. Stonewall didn't want to give me extra time to take my exams. When the topic was broached, he peppered me with questions, trying to poke holes in the rationale for giving a student using a computer rather than a pen and paper extra time on a written exam. The Stonewalls of the world are tough and intimidating, but ultimately their bark is worse than their bite. They're trying to make sure you're "legit," which isn't right, but it's to-be-expected, since they've heard every excuse in the book, and they're naturally suspicious. Their challenging questions are enough to make you back down and even question the legitimacy of your own accommodations, which you should never do, on principle. Don't let these types of professors cause you to question yourself.

My biggest failure was with Mr. Towers. Mr. Towers was an older professor who had been teaching very small, very elite classes for many years. He quite literally worked in an ivory tower and, as a result, was detached and ambivalent about the needs of young ambitious individuals, particularly those with disabilities. I had to audition for his class, was accepted on merit, and everything was fine with Mr. Towers until he saw a hint of weakness during regular coursework. I had trouble reading some of the non-text graphics that were necessary for the course and, because my vision loss was a recent thing for me, I didn't know what the best system was for adapting that information. Rather than become a voice of support and assure me that I could be given the time and resources to find a solution, Mr. Towers detached and became emotionally inaccessible. These types of professors are often even more difficult to deal with than the more confrontational Stonewalls, because as they detach, so do you. As a result, I ended up walking away from the class and the prestigious opportunities it could have brought. There's a tough reality here: sometimes you have to pick your battles and decide if an unhelpful professor is worth the emotional toil. If there's another way to achieve your goals, there are rare cases in which dropping a class is the best way to preserve your energies, but it should never be your first response. Mr. Towers' class was not critical to my major or minor, but if I had really cared I like to think I'd have figured out a way to make it work. There's no happy ending here except the lesson learned: when they detach, you have to push forward.

A happier story is that of Mr. Manchester (sorry these are all male professors, that's just how it happened for me, but in my experience, female-identifying professors are more accommodating in general). Mr. Manchester was young and enthusiastic, a vibrant public speaker with tons of energy. In such a professor lies great opportunities to not only be well-accommodated, but transform the needs of your disability into a creative opportunity. In this case, I had a medical event correspond with our midterm paper, and straining my vision to write the paper was just not an option. I sat in Mr. Manchester's office and we talked about it. I still remember his bearing: thoughtful, playful even, mulling over how we could solve this problem in a creative way. Then he offered: what if I recorded an audio essay instead of a written one? He knew I had some ability to record audio and that this would not only be easier for me than writing with magnification, but more fun. Because I took the time to come to his office hours and invite him into the accommodations process, he waived a significant amount of work for me and allowed me to express myself in a totally other, creative way. I got an A on the assignment. Accommodations don't need to be the same for every class - and when your communication is strong, a professor can be your best fiend.

As blind or low vision students, the education system is set up to fund us with money and to back us up with accommodations, but no one teaches you how to talk to your teachers. If I could go back and change one thing about my college experience, this is one of the first things I would do differently. The way you communicate with your teachers is probably the single-most important skill for a student with a disability. We are often not prepared though. And if no one has taught us how to have quiet, uncompromising confidence about our capabilities, how can we expect others to have confidence in us in turn?

In every case, you must meet your professors more than half-way. In academia, a professor is supposed to be a leader, but they will often follow the lead of their students. The best professors will draw out even the tiniest glimmer of a student's potential - but the majority of professors are in a reactive mode. Students who are brash and headstrong must be corrected righteously; students who never raise their hand are often ignored; and students with disabilities will not be accommodated unless they are their own advocates.

Talking to a professor is not easy, but most of the hard part happens in you, before the actual conversation. Ask yourself a few simple questions: Am I able to talk about my disability openly? Am I comfortable enough to inspire confidence in others? And how do I react when challenged? Having answers to these sorts of questions is the best way to prepare for the inevitable bumps in the road that come with being a student navigating a diverse and unpredictable campus. When all else fails, though, jump the Stonewall, escape the Towers, and head for Manchester.

Will Butler previously served on the College Success Program's Advisory Panel and as the Communications Director at the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, CA. He currently serves as the Vice President of Community at Be My Eyes.