“Anybody there?” – Teaching online as a blind academic

Draining, challenging and inaccessible. That is my honest summary even after a year of practice and experience when it comes to online teaching. I am aware that there is much debate within the academy about the pedagogic benefits or downsides of teaching online. I don’t want to get into this debate; rather I want to point out what it was and is like for me: a blind academic.

Many fellow academics commented that online teaching should be easy for me as I am used to not seeing my students. This is true but also fundamentally wrong. Yes, I am used to not seeing my students or at least that they resemble a blurry moving greyish vortex rather than a group of people. Yes, I am used to disembodied voices talking to me from that same vortex. Yet, I am not used to not being able to hear and sense my students. In the classroom I can hear if they pay attention, I can feel if they are confused or bored. Movements, fidgeting, shuffling, breathing; all of these are cues for me when I teach. I don’t see the student being most attentive, but I can feel where they are. Online teaching doesn’t just take away visual cues as it does for my colleagues ( for example, when students keep their cameras off). For me it is like teaching into a void. I cannot perceive the students. To be blunt, I wouldn’t know if nobody was there.  This makes it very hard. As a blind person, I rely on auditory and sensory cues from my environment to gage information, with that gone I feel disorientated and lost.

But that is not the whole challenge with online teaching for me. I use a screen reader. Over the course of the pandemic, the accessibility of some of the online teaching tools has improved to be screen reader friendly. This, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that they are teaching-friendly. My screen reader informs me every time someone enters or leaves the virtual room, types something in the chatbox, uses one of those emoji reaction things, or raises their virtual hands. Thus, it would work perfectly if everyone arrived on time, left at the end and didn’t use the chat box instead of their voice to communicate. Yet, this isn’t the reality. Due to connectivity or other issues, students come in late and drop out, come back and drop out again. Most feel uncomfortable talking as they might be in public places and don’t want to be overheard, so they type. This leads to constant input from my screen reader which is frankly very distracting and makes it impossible to engage in conversations with my students. If someone sends a message while someone else talks, my screen reader shouts over them and I cannot fully grasp what either has said. Thus, my only option is to turn off my screen reader completely. But this also means I have no idea what happens in the chat box, if people are still in the call, if someone has raised their hand, or even if my slides are still up. Putting it bluntly, I am completely in the “dark”. This makes me feel incompetent and extremely uncomfortable.

So how have I been doing it? Well, I was lucky that I already worked with my support worker, Emilio. He has joined all my online classes and is my eyes during these sessions. He tells me what students have typed in the chat, if somebody raised their hand, or anything else that might be going on visually. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t have a support worker in place already.

That being said, I don’t like having to use a support worker to do this. Don’t get me wrong, Emilio is doing an amazing job. It’s the fact that this is yet another thing I can’t do independently. I have long since accepted that total independence is a myth that especially non-disabled people try to achieve despite it being unobtainable and frankly undesirable. As a disabled woman, I rely on others for many things. I use my guide dog to get around. I have my Emilio to help me with many parts of my job that are highly visual or inaccessible, such as our assignment submission system. He also serves as my sighted guide when Lassie cant join me (as my hiking adventures demonstrate nicely).  It just sets me back and reminds me of those skeptical voices who believe that a blind person can’t be an academic or can’t be a good teacher. Sitting in front of my laptop staring into the void and listening to the utter silence, not knowing what is going on, just makes it so much harder to push back on those voices. 

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