All human beings are different, we all have our specific personalities and needs. We also learn and communicate differently.
I am conducting a training course in Ulaanbatar, the capital of Mongolia. This training is for a group of persons with moderate or severe disabilities. In this post I want to share some of my thoughts during this training about looking at disabilities as diversities among people and how these affect our learning and communicating needs.
Yesterday, we were talking about empowerment and I had asked my students to think about different barriers to empowerment.
I don’t know how many of you have heard of the word “empowerment” and what do you think about its meaning. I think that I had heard it for the first time some decades ago when it was used to talk about women facing exploitation and their need to fight against it. They used it to mean the capacity of the women to fight for their rights.
When we talk about empowerment in relation to persons with disabilities, we are talking about the possibility of these persons to make the decisions about their lives and to able to speak about themselves.
In my class, while talking about empowerment, I had also talked about vulnerability of persons, explaining how some persons or groups can be more easily exploited and have their rights violated.
During the training, Mrs. Shugarjav, who was translating my words into sign language for our two deaf students, told me that it was difficult for her to translate abstract concepts like “empowerment” and “vulnerability” into sign language. To make these concepts understandable to the deaf students, I needed to simplify their meanings and make them more concrete by using practical examples.
This made me think of how our languages influence how we think and understand the world. Though I have been working in the field of disability for many years, I had never really thought about the translation of abstract concepts into sign language. This was also because my contacts with deaf persons have not been very frequent.
I think that there must be a similar problem in reading and understanding text books for the deaf students who learn through sign language, when they reach university. This would be especially for students coming from special schools, where they often use simplified learning materials.
Reaching my teaching goals
Persons with learning difficulties in our group also have difficulties in following me. When I start talking, after a short while I can see their gaze turn glassy and some of them start to look sleepy.
Around one third of my students have problems with focusing their attention. If I just speak about a lot of concepts and ideas, I can see that they do not follow me. They learn most if they take an active role by talking about and discussing those concepts and ideas. Thus, the best way to teach them is to make them work in small groups, where they can discuss among themselves and share their own experiences and understandings.
However group discussions and then presentations about those discussions require a lot of time. On the other hand, I usually get limited days to complete the training. For many of them, coming to the class in the morning is complicated and at the end of the day, going back is equally complicated. So, we can’t start very early or finish late.
Thus invariably I usually conclude my trainings without managing to talk about some of the essential concepts and skills or, at best, managing to touch on them in a superficial way.
Thinking of diverse needs of people
I started this post with my students’ discussions about empowerment. In one group exercise, I asked them to think about the obstacles they face during their daily lives and what was needed to overcome those obstacles.
One of my students, a blind young man, said that he liked films and he wanted to go to cinema hall to watch a movie. For him, the obstacle was that there is no audio-description of the films in the cinema halls and he did not like it. I was thinking about his words for a long time.
The issue of making the world inclusive so that all the persons with difficulties can access the things is important, not just for persons with disabilities but for everyone. For example, making ramps and not having steps, helps persons on wheel chairs and those using crutches and walking canes. At the same time, the ramps help people with suitcase-trolleys to pull, pregnant women and old persons, and mothers with babies in the prams.
However, making the world inclusive is not so easy. When we go out, from pavements to buses, toilets, and majority of the buildings, most places are not accessible for persons with mobility difficulties.
However, if there is a commercial value in something, that usually helps in increasing access to different services. For example, film-subtitles are made so that more persons in different countries can watch those and earn more money. At the same time, they help the deaf people and hard of hearing people. They may also help the people learning a new language, and people who are not familiar with the spoken language. Research has shown that subtitles can teach reading to illiterate children.
However, the need for having audio-descriptions in films for the blind persons is not well understood. Perhaps people feel that blind persons cannot enjoy a film because they cannot see it? I don’t think that I have ever seen a DVD or a Blueray disk with audio-description for blind persons.
Lack of audio-description in cinema, is it just because of technical challenges such as - how to provide audio-description in a cinema hall without disturbing the rest of the audience? Or is it because it does not make commercial sense? What do you think?
My experience of teaching young disabled adults highlights some of the challenges for communicating effectively. In the end these challenges are not just for persons with disabilities but all classrooms and all students. From this experience, my conclusions are:
- * Learning about abstract concepts is easier when it is accompanied by practical examples related to daily lives of the learners.
- * Where ever possible, interactive learning in which persons can play an active role is much better than giving lectures.
- * Not all of us learn in the same way, thinking of different communication needs each learner and the barriers they may be facing is important for an inclusive world.
Note 1: The images used with this post are of my students from the training and were taken by Mr. L. Turbat
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