Braille Monitor                                                                                 March 2006

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"Why Do You Wear Those Shades?"
Communicating Competence in the Classroom

by J. Webster Smith

J. Webster Smith
J. Webster Smith

From the Editor: J.W. Smith is first vice president of the NFB of Ohio and professor of communications studies at Ohio University. In November 2004 he delivered a version of the following article as a paper at the National Communication Association Conference. He has stripped out the academic analysis and left in the thoughtful reflections on his career in the university classroom. This is what he says:

It was the third year of my teaching career, and I had agreed to substitute teach for one of my colleagues at Wayne State University. It was a basic speech communication course, and I was actually gratified that my colleague had trusted me enough to sub for him. Upon entering the class, as is always the case when a sub walks in, I could sense the nervousness of some of the students, but I proceeded to the front of the room, sat on the desk, and began the session. This was 1986, and at that time I wore dark shades, not only because I thought I was cool, but because for some blind people it was a commonly accepted behavior. About a third of the way into my lecture in discussion with the class that day--I forget the topic--a young lady said to me quite innocently, “Why do you wear those shades?” Taken aback by the question, I muttered a response and then learned while discussing the issue that, because the shades were mirrored, the sun streaming in the window was reflecting off the shades and as she said, “They’re blinding me. Could you take them off?” As you might expect, for me as a blind professor it was an ambivalent moment. On one hand it allowed us to talk about my disability, which I had forgotten to mention at the beginning of the class. On the other hand, because the student hadn’t realized that I was blind, she felt uncomfortable and guilty and regretted bringing the matter up. I have never forgotten that experience. It is the one and only time I can remember forgetting to seize the opportunity to communicate about my blindness in the classroom.

When I walked into my first communication class at Purdue in 1983, I decided that I would never begin a class without discussing my blindness candidly and openly and in a way that would give me control of the topic. It worked for me in that first class, and that course remains a pleasant memory. In fact I am still friends with some of those students today after more than twenty years. The issue of blindness is a central part of who I am and the kind of communication instructor I try to be.

When one travels, one is often asked the question, “What do you do?” I get that question frequently, but it’s often followed, eventually if not immediately, by “How do you do it?” The purpose of this short paper is to discuss some of the pedagogical concerns about dealing with my blindness in the classroom and what has worked and why.

Empathy and Disclosure

I have found that empathy and proceeding from a theory of self-disclosure have been effective techniques for me. Beginning the first time I walk into the classroom, I talk about my blindness, and in fact my opening quote is usually, “I am blind or visually impaired. I don’t care what term you use, but as far as I’m concerned, all it means for this class is that you will have to find a way to get my attention other than raising your hand.” This is often met with somewhat nervous laughter, but I think the point is made. I usually hasten to add, “Now I know you will forget sometimes, and you’ll be embarrassed and your friends will laugh at you and you will laugh at yourself, but it’s okay. I’m okay with being blind, and you should be as well.” I’m fortunate to be able to teach a class on communicating with people with disabilities in which my blindness is for the most part a plus. However, even in my other classes I try to make my blindness a positive part of the class. I don’t talk about it all the time, nor do I want it to be front and center in the students’ minds, but when appropriate, I want to be able to talk about it on my own terms.

Self-disclosure is crucial in leading my class. I am selective about what I disclose, but I seize every opportunity to talk about the way blindness affects my life in general and the ways it can teach a valuable lesson to temporarily able-bodied individuals. My purpose for self-disclosure is not to engender sympathy, but empathy, i.e., an understanding, even an appreciation of the challenges I continually face. As one might expect, people often want to know how my blindness occurred, how I do my job, and whether it is going to be a big issue in the course.

Communication, Competence, and Credibility

Most important, however, students want to know if I can do the job and how I do it. This is where it’s important that I convey to them that with a few exceptions this class will be no different from any other class, especially when it comes to assessment, grading, and evaluation. I casually tell them about the various methods I use in grading papers, i.e., email submissions, scanning papers, using readers, and sometimes incorporating oral evaluation in the course. What most concerns students is that as the leader of the class I am in control, that they need not worry about my hurting myself or providing an unfair method of assessment different from any other they have had. With this in mind, I familiarize myself with the classroom and the technology so that I can use the video, DVD player, computer, and all the other screens as effectively as possible. I move around the classroom, engaging in the normal, day-to-day teaching activities and conversational give-and-take that allow them to recognize my control and the normality of the class.

In over twenty years of teaching at the university level, I’ve had only one experience in which students tried to take advantage of my blindness. I started a video and stepped out for a few minutes. A few students left, probably thinking I didn’t know they had disappeared. Needless to say, after I dealt with that situation during the next class, it never happened again, and I think they learned a valuable lesson. Several years after that experience a few of those students stopped to thank me for confronting them and teaching them a lesson.

Credibility is also an issue when dealing with blindness. When you are different or viewed as different, issues of credibility are always just beneath the surface in the minds of most students and people in general. I remember just before I actually finished my dissertation and received my Ph.D., I was teaching a class at a university and presumptuously decided to use the honorific “doctor.” A student said in class one day, “I found out that you’re not a doctor yet.” That taught me a valuable lesson: not to pretend to be something I was not. I’m granted a certain amount of credibility when students look at my blindness--my so-called disability--and then look at my teaching career and see that I have earned a Ph.D. It’s often articulated as, “Gosh, if he can do it, what about me?” I think that kind of credibility is extended to me. And make no mistake; I use that credibility to my advantage, I hope, to ensure an effective classroom.

Conclusion

After more than twenty years of teaching at the university level, I have found that my blindness as I portray it and convey it in my classes is more of a plus than a minus. By effective and selective self-disclosure, I’m able to gain empathy from my students and create a climate that values diversity and allows for contributions from all perspectives. Students feel at ease as I lead them throughout the school term. Communication, competence, and credibility are crucial elements, I believe, for me as a blind instructor. Students don’t want to feel that they are babysitting, they don’t want to believe they’re not learning something, and they don’t want to feel as if they have to teach the class. As I write this paper, I am in communication with a blind instructor at a mid-western university who is having a difficult time, largely because she is young (this is her first teaching experience), but her problems also have a lot to do with competence and credibility. From what I’ve gathered, students have to help her with the little things in the classroom. Make no mistake about it; students don’t mind being helpful, but a clear line must exist between who is the instructor and who is the student. While the professor’s blindness may be an issue, it ought to be positive, not one that detracts from his or her ability to be an effective instructor.

It would be interesting to talk with other blind professors about the way they deal with issues in the classroom. As a member of the National Federation of the Blind and as the second vice president of the National Organization of Blind Educators, I have talked with instructors at the elementary and secondary levels as well as at the university level about how their blindness affects what they do. In short, it’s safe to say that, if a teacher is comfortable talking about his or her blindness and students believe that the teacher knows how to do the job, the classroom experience with a blind instructor is pretty similar to that with a sighted one.

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