Thursday, June 14, 2018

Adaptability, Accountability, Vulnerability: MLA 2018, part six

This is the sixth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

390: Disability Issues in the Profession: Negotiating between Theory and Best Practices

Notwithstanding the generic title, the panel was about disability and foreign language learning. Twelve people were in the audience, maybe sixteen max: a lot of people left early on and then some arrived. The panel opened with Elizabeth Hamilton, who’d collaborated with Tammy Berberi on an essay in the Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts anthology and on Worlds Apart? Disability and Foreign Language Learning. Why, she asked, should language educators lead in accessible pedagogy? Because we know culture, diversity, and stories; we engage nuance and perspective and audience and voice; our programs are poised for leadership, and our methods are already multimodal. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. Think about the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, seen in this image with Daniel Barenboim. Labeled a “child of thalidomide,” he was unable to meet the requirement to play the piano in order to be admitted to the conservatory, so instead he had to seek private study, found great teachers, and became a big name.

Heidi Soneson directs the study abroad program for the University of Minnesota and facilitates access to study abroad for students with disabilities, which takes empathy and attention to the four modalities of language-learning accommodation: flexibility, inclusion, access, and accountability. She explained Universal Design and then talked about how her office considers which programs can accommodate the needs of a disabled student. Factors include size of class, rigidity of testing, duration of travel, pre-arrival preparations, nuanced problem-solving, and the ability to adjust. On the inclusion front, countries “more advanced” in terms of disability law may be worse for students: the Senegal program, it turns out, is more flexible than a location in France. Re: duration, it turns out that a longer program might make fewer unfeasible demands than a shorter one.

Considering access, one asks what benefits the host nation provides. Montpellier offers accommodations for mobility-impaired French university students, but the University of Minnesota’s center there needed to be remodeled for access. Accountability is paramount: full disclosure in a timely manner on the part of the student, etc. etc. At this point, overloaded with material to absorb from all these panels and the book exhibit, I started drifting off and thinking about Senator Kamala Harris.

Benjamin Fraser began his presentation by citing Corbett O’Toole on the necessity of disclosing one’s connection to disability. Fraser is not disabled. He knows ASL, he’s worked with Deaf scholars, he has a brother-in-law with Down Syndrome, intellectual disability, and epilepsy. He’s concerned with the disconnect between the strong social model and its application to the lives of actual cognitively disabled people. There are classics about the representation of physical disability and its centrality to communication and history, but. We must stage an encounter between the strong social model and the medical/clinical approach to cognitive disability. We have to talk about “function.” As Bérubé points out, it is real; but it can never be a meaningful measure of human worth.

Recalling Elizabeth Donaldson’s paper, Fraser cited collaborative self-representation involving autistic and cognitively disabled and mentally disabled creators. Fraser can’t answer the question elicited by reading Titchkosky [would that I had written that question in my notes!] but can cite three interesting programs. There are course sections at East Carolina, capped at 14, that only serve students with documented need; there’s the REACH program at the College of Charleston, which promotes language learning for the intellectually or neurocognitively disabled. What if colleges sought to collaborate with organizations like Creative Growth, where the sculptor Judith Scott worked? What changes and collaborations must we introduce in order to make contact with and include the cognitively disabled?

Tammy Berberi was unable to attend; her frequent collaborator Elizabeth read her paper for her. States of Insecurity, it told us, are nothing new: the U.S. first asserted English-only paranoia in 1795. But now we have the mental health crisis on college campuses. Look at the recent Chronicle of Higher Ed report on anguished college students. There’s a mental disability epidemic, as reported in the Chronicle’s video, “Facing Anxiety.” 42% of Berberi’s students are the first in their families to attend college. Many think they cannot or should not finish a degree. Five years ago, inspired by Cathy Davidson, Halberstam made a plea for Unlearning What We Know. Hegel’s and Ricoeur’s notions of recognition are present in Alexandre Jollien’s account of his adventures inside an institution for children with CP, “In Praise of Weakness.”

How, then, can I invest the classroom with a sense of presence and intention? Mindfulness through regular contemplative praxis develops one’s capacities, compassion, and openness to new experiences, promoting neuroplasticity and language learning, lowering students’ affective filter. Studying another language, in turn, develops emotional flexibility, improves executive function, reduces impulse-control problems.

Although French theorists have long spurned identity politics, group identification is necessary. Both Stiker and Kristeva highlight openness and vulnerability. Kristeva, discussing “the battle for the dignity of the disabled,” suggests “inscribing vulnerability at the center of the political pact”; Stiker advocates “the right to simply be as one is, and to be accepted on those terms”; these principles align well with Mindfulness Intervention. Berberi knows the opposite of these values when she sees it—a syllabus full of rules and of consequences for violating them, one full of helicopter teaching. Her own syllabus contains a disability statement with three parts, covering due date issues, attendance issues, and participation issues in interesting ways.

My notes on the Q&A are a little sketchy. Someone asked a question about Boaz Keysar. Another person asked about the treatment of disability in other countries, and Elizabeth replied that disability studies and the U.S.-influenced disability movement are having an impact but inclusion in the K-12 educational system is not well-understood. Someone asked advice about putting together a book about teaching canonical literature from a disability perspective; I and other respondents suggested she look at the work of Finger and Bérubé, and talked about Berberi’s and Quayson’s experience of trying to persuade old-school academicians that canonical literature is full of disability. One auditor pointed out that Bérubé has a TED talk on these issues. Finally, someone asked about dealing with multiply-disabled disadvantaged students; Heidi said, you have to think about the individuality of disability—what does the student want and what are their needs.

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