Distance Learning And Disability: A View From The Instructor's Side Of The Virtual Lectern
As students enter my online classroom on inclusion, I ask them to introduce themselves, sharing their current positions, teaching experience, whether they have taken other online courses, and any experiences they may have had with individuals with disabilities. The biggest challenge for me is whether or not to tell my students at the onset that I have cerebral palsy.
CHALLENGES OF "LIVE" TEACHING
Most of us with obvious disabilities cannot enter a room without others noticing our conditions. Therefore, I know that if I entered a traditional classroom as an instructor with cerebral palsy, I might stir predispositions that students might possess about people with disabilities. These attitudes might hinder students' ability to focus on the content. Furthermore, students might not understand my speech nor appreciate my handing back wrinkled, drooled-upon papers with illegible comments.
For these reasons, I suppressed my desire to teach, opting for a career that would allow me to influence those in the classroom as an assistive technology consultant, writer, and researcher. These decisions were made long before the Internet opened a new world to me, providing communication abilities and access to people throughout the world.
My college teaching experience for my doctorate involved assisting a professor in creating a web-based course. As I discovered more about the interactions in a web-based classroom, I realized that this emerging technology was more than just a job: It was a perfect venue for me to teach, free from the constraints of my disability.
ADVANTAGES OF ONLINE TEACHING FOR INSTRUCTORS WITH DISABILITIES
Little, if any, information on the effects of distance educators with disabilities exists. In fact, there have been very few studies of individuals with disabilities teaching in face-to-face situations. Beattie, Anderson, and Antonak (1997) evaluated the effects of a special education course with an instructor with a physical disability on attitudes of preservice educators toward people with disabilities. Preservice educators who were taught by an instructor with a disability expressed more favorable attitudes toward students with disabilities only when they also viewed videotapes presenting positive portrayals of persons with disabilities in regular settings. Neither the videotapes nor the disability characteristics of the professor alone influenced attitudes toward the integration of disabled students into regular classrooms.
One advantage of online learning is that instructors can take time to answer more individual questions (Draves, 2000). In a traditional face-to-face course, meeting three hours each week, I could only answer a handful of questions from a few students. Furthermore, I would likely need to use an augmentative communication device to be understood by all students. Even with abbreviation expansion, my slow typing would further limit the number of questions I could answer and the depth and spontaneity of my answers in a time-limited format.
Another great advantage of the online world is that I can interact with others without the hindrance of impaired speech and mobility. I can take as long as I need to type an email or create a web page, and my communication partners need not know I have a disability unless it is relevant. Since I work in the field of special education and assistive technology, my personal experience with disability is often relevant, but it has always been nice to have the option of anonymity.
THE DILEMMA OF DISCLOSURE
When I accepted a job teaching a course on inclusion for general educators, I faced a dilemma associated with the anonymity of online communication. The purpose of the class was to make general educators more comfortable with teaching students with disabilities. Would my disability help create positive attitudes about individuals with disabilities, create negative attitudes, or have no effect at all?
I felt strongly that my experiences as a student with cerebral palsy in general education was important to share, as part of my expertise on inclusion. However, I wanted my students to begin the course examining their concerns about teaching students with disabilities. I feared that my disclosing my disability at the onset might temper the teachers' real anxieties and that they might not be as forthcoming, fearing that they would offend their instructor.
For my first time teaching the course, I waited until the fourth week of class, when our topics included physical and multiple disabilities, to disclose my having cerebral palsy. To integrate my experiences as smoothly into the course as possible, I thought of myself as a guest speaker in my own class. Each week, I posted several questions to which students responded through a threaded discussion. One of the questions for Week Four appeared as follows:
What would you ask a student with CP who was included during her entire educational career? Post your questions to the discussion board, and I will answer. I was an included student with CP and learned a great deal from the experience. I have difficulty using my hands, walking, and speaking. I type with my feet. I waited until now to tell you this because I did not want you to censor your feelings about teaching students with disabilities or be afraid you might hurt my feelings. But now that you know, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about being an included student with a significant disability!
The first time I posted this discussion prompt, I held my breath, not knowing the nature of response I would receive. I hoped that my students did not feel mislead.
STUDENTS' REACTIONS TO DISCLOSURE
The reaction from the first group was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, each student asked approximately three to six questions. Since I also had to address other topics for that week, with 29 students, answering each student's questions required longer than the allotted time I anticipated. In future classes, I limited students to one or two initial questions with the opportunity to follow-up.
Many students in the first and subsequent classes expressed their gratitude at having the chance to ask questions of an included student. One student commented: "It is so awesome that you are teaching this course with such a rich background experience." Another student said: "� thank you for being so candid with us."
A student in another class expressed his feelings this way:
I have read every single question and answer posted on CP/and on A Student's View of Inclusion. I find it greatly rewarding to know that my instructor is not basing her experiences on others' only but rather in a direct more personal way.
I have not received any strong negative reaction to my disclosure.
TIMING OF DISCLOSURE
After teaching the course this way three times, I was curious to see if students would react differently if I disclosed my disability at the beginning of the course. All students were asked to introduce themselves during their first few days online, and I posted an introduction also. Along with my shortened educational and professional history and hobbies, I added a few lines to my introduction:
I have a special interest in students who have a combination of physical disabilities and speech impairments, because I have cerebral palsy. I was one of the first students with severe disabilities to be included from first grade on. I have set aside time in week four for you to ask about my experiences.
In order to preserve the class structure and to prevent the discussion from being centered on my experiences, I retained the question and answer session in the fourth week. However, when I disclosed my disability from the start, I felt freer to insert a few anecdotes from my personal experiences in the first three weeks to illustrate a point if necessary. In the classes in which I delayed disclosure, I shared one or two pertinent experiences, disguised as those of a student I knew, which felt a bit awkward.
In general, the climate of the classes in which I disclosed my disability at the beginning and those in which I delayed disclosure did not feel different. I found that a few students expressed more enthusiasm about inclusion than in the other classes and were more friendly and less formal in their individual emails to me. I did not sense that they were patronizing in any way. Although a few made comments about my disability in the context of the first three weeks' topics, most waited to discuss my disability until the question and answer session in Week Four.
Since I did not find a difference, I now wait until the fourth week to disclose my disability. I feel that this allows my students to be as honest as possible about their concerns regarding inclusion, and might dispel some perceived notions students may hold about individuals with disabilities with the element of "surprise."
IMPACT OF INSTRUCTOR'S DISABILITY
At the conclusion of the courses, most students indicated that they are more confident about teaching students with disabilities. I do not attribute this solely to their having an instructor with a disability. Rather, I think that a combination of gaining information about special education law, learning teaching strategies and skills for managing behavior, and asking questions of a student who has experienced inclusion all work together to ease their fears. Reexamining her initial fears about teaching students with disabilities, one student wrote:
I have realized from all of the reading and especially from Denise's discussion about her experience with special education that the best thing I can do is just be myself with all of my students. If I should have students with special needs, my job is to help them with their goals and not to necessarily make life perfect or to take away all of their pain and problems.
Some of the teachers have indicated that the class had changed their attitudes about inclusion. "You have shown me that inclusion can and does work," one said. Another described her attitude change this way:
Wow, in six weeks my whole outlook on inclusion has changed�I was so focused on the main curriculum and teaching just one way to all the students that I lost the individual touch that's needed for each and every one for my students�A lot of my fears have been alleviated and more confidence has set in. I am looking forward to next year and having all the 8th grade RSP students spread throughout all my classes during the day. It makes my classes more interesting now and not more frustrating. :) Friendships, social skills, study skills, life lessons. These are the things that will benefit them the most and will help become better people, which in the end is truly MY JOB!
One teacher was honest enough to say: "To be candid, my position remains the same regarding inclusion. I think that the needs of the special needs student can be best served in a special needs classroom."
LIMITATIONS AND SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
This paper entails my personal reflections on being a distance educator with cerebral palsy. I have never taught the class without disclosing my disability. Therefore, the degree to which my disclosure or nondisclosure affects the attitudes of my students has not been established beyond my own judgment.
In the future, I plan to conduct formal qualitative and quantitative analyses of my students' opinions, using content analysis and pre- and post-course administration of an instrument such as the Mainstream Attitude Survey (Bender, Vail, & Scott, 1995). I may also compare the comments of my students to those with an instructor without a disability.
To assess the impact of having an instructor with a disability on teachers' attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and inclusion, I might consider inviting another adult with a disability who was included in general education to be a guest speaker, leaving my own disability out of the course.
Although I have much experience in assistive technology consulting and a Ph.D. in special education, I was afraid that students might not consider me qualified to teach the course because I have not actually taught students with disabilities in a classroom. However, comments such as this one from a recent student have eased this concern and have given me confidence that my personal view of inclusion enhances my expertise:
I have to admit that the possibility that my instructor had actually lived the course hadn't crossed my mind. I actually feel better about the course knowing that my instructor had REAL first hand knowledge of inclusion. (I have had some experiences with education course instructors who were soooooo far removed from the topic they were trying to teach that I didn't feel like they had any idea what I was going through in the classroom.)
Beattie, J. R, Anderson, R. J., and Antonak, R. F. (May 1997). Modifying attitudes of prospective educators toward students with disabilities and their integration into regular classrooms. Journal of Psychology, (13)3, 245-259.
Bender, W. N., Vail, C. O., & Scott, K. (1995). Teachers' attitudes toward increased mainstreaming: Implementing effective instruction for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 87-94.
Draves, W. A. (2000). Teaching Online. River Falls, WI: LERN Books.