Accommodating Difference

person stares at confusing sign showing counter-clockwise arrow inside the circle of a larger clockwise arrow. No, I don't have any idea either.

Why This Panel?

This is my second CCCC experience, and I appear to be starting a trend of having the best session I attend be the one that’s least related to my areas of interest. At last year’s conference, following the recommendation of Melody Bowdon, I attended a panel titled “Silence, Listening, Identity: Bearing Witness to Female Bodies” and presented by Cheryl Glenn, Shirley Logan, Kris Ratcliffe, and Joyce Irene Middleton. I was one of perhaps three men in the audience. I didn’t know these women, and I didn’t know why I would want to know about female identity from an academic perspective. I went because Bowdon said they were dynamite speakers, and I’d be amazed.

She was right.

The panelists’ conversations about ageism in the academy got me to think about the arc of my professional career on the cusp of its humble beginnings. Their thoughts on women in administration made me consider how I need to consider the position of others when I hold any kind of academic position, even if it’s not one in administration. And their comments on race and sexuality in the classroom almost had me come out to my students a year ago. I say “almost” because I chickened out right at the last minute, deciding that I didn’t want to draw attention to the matter. Still have yet to do that, but I digress.

The panel was a knock-out, and I remember it better than any other element of the conference. Yet I wasn’t able, from the program description alone, to see any connection between the panelists’ topics and what I do in the classroom. I think that’s what made the panel so effective: The connection was mine to make; it wasn’t handed to me.

Fast-forward to this year’s conference and a small Saturday-morning panel on disability studies. I’ve never shown professional interest in disability studies outside the scope of my training in gifted education. So why did I go? I’ve always been fascinated by disability, and one of the speakers (Margaret Price) earned an award the night before for her most recent book, Mad at School. I figured she had something great to say, no matter what she was talking about. While that was indeed the case, her talk was actually the least connected to my current career position, research, and side interests of any of the four. What grabbed me though was how Price chaired the panel. I had never before witnessed a conference session so acutely aware of the needs of differences than this one. It blew me away, but subtly.

The Set-up

This was the only panel I attended that displayed the session and presenter names on the screen before beginning—a feature I thought we needed to see more often at this conference. People walking in knew immediately that they were where they wanted to be. I appreciated that modest gesture because the one panelist whose face I would recognize was not in the room when I arrived, yet I immediately knew I could settle in to the space. A minor point, but a helpful one.

When Price introduced the panel, she started by “pointing out some accessibility issues in the room.” She described the room’s visual characteristics—this was even before the one attendee with a red-tipped walking stick entered the room—by acknowledging the mirrored ceiling, the very busy carpet design, and the rather random scattering of chairs arranged around tables. She then explicitly gave the audience members to make use of the space however they needed, by moving, standing, rearranging, you name it. “Hack it ’til it works,” she said, “so long as we don’t incur a fee.” I’m not one who needs to move often, but I recognized the act of granting permission to move from my days of teaching hyperactive 14-year-olds and letting them stand up and walk around during lectures just to get themselves moving and work out the occasional stir-craziness.

The Panels

Even the individual talks surprised me with how accommodations for those with disabilities benefitted me directly. The first panelist provided handouts in three forms: transcript, large-print transcript, and outline. I’ve never liked reading transcripts while speakers presented; the dissonance between sight and sound makes it more difficult for me to process the content. But the outline handout was the perfect balance, allowing me to keep tabs on where I was, predict the path of the argument, but not get distracted by the text as I tried to process the audio. I intend to adopt that handout format in my future presentations.

Any time a presenter used a relevant visual—anything more than basic text on the slide—the presenter would describe the image contents, as a sort of descriptive captioning for the visually impaired. It’s certainly a nice gesture, and because the technique was only used for slides where the visuals were necessary to make the point, it didn’t get distracting. A demonstration of descriptive slide captioning in action occurs at around the two-minute mark of this YouTube video (will start at 1:55). The presenter, who is deaf, displays a funny image, waits for the laughter to slow, then pauses to “say a few words about this slide.” She tells audience members about the photograph, in a manner I can’t help but think sounds like explaining the punchline to someone who didn’t get a joke. I’m left wondering how this process can best be handled to try and minimize the disruption to the flow of the presentation or the moment of the humor, while still preserving accommodation for sight-impaired audience members.

This got me thinking/paranoid about my own presentations, which are increasingly relying on visuals to focus and drive my points. I like providing images that add to the subtext of the story I’m telling without needing to be explicitly addressed. I suppose my use of “subtext” here means I wouldn’t need to describe non-vital or non-explanatory visuals from my slides. But the sample video I referenced above struck a chord with the CCCC talk I gave last week. On one of my slides, I wanted to discuss how students choose the delivery mode of their composition class. I wanted to be my normal lighthearted self, and I wanted to provide an image that portrayed the essence of decision-making. I projected a shot of three urinals along a wall.

Slide titled "How Students Choose” showing three urinals with no dividers between them. Text on slide compares institutional expectations to student reports for why they select hybrid courses.

The crowd laughed. I sighed with relief, not knowing whether that was too crass for CCCC. Anyway, I addressed my concerns about the possible reception of the image and quickly moved on with my talk. At no point did I describe the image. If anyone was unable to see the screen, they just got left out of the joke. I feel awful now.

As I wrote in the comments to Chris Lindgren’s self-assessment of his CCCC presentation performance, I
typically prefer to write the “paper” for a talk and post it online before I give a presentation. Then, I actually perform the talk from the slides alone (which I actually make before writing the paper). Sounds like I’m going to further refine that process, so that I will now go through these steps to help me prepare and help my audience access the content:

  1. Make the slides to show my ideas
  2. Build the outline of my talk as handouts
  3. Write the “paper” for my talk and post it to my blog

That way, I’ll have helpful content to distribute and better preparation for myself. Now I just need to remember that darned descriptive captioning. I think my mental mantra will be “Remember the urinals!”

Oh, dear.

[Photo of sign by @Doug88888 on Flickr; photo of urinals by stungeye on Flickr.]]]>