Thursday, February 04, 2010

the hand you're dealt

No, Dave, I wouldn't condemn you, though maybe I'd more state it as "He took what was a very bad situation for him and managed to do something beneficial with it." Rather than, I don't know, sitting around and wailing about how he couldn't do what he wanted to any more, or demanding that people accommodate him (I am sure there are some made, but I know lots of people who are surprised when I remark that he uses a wheelchair - they simply don't know that because it's not made obvious)

I think about the various Disability Concerns students I've had over the years - I've had blind students, deaf students, students with mobility issues, a student (currently) that I think is probably autistic (though we don't get the official diagnoses, just the information on how we need to accommodate, she behaves a lot like another person I knew with autism). And then the students with the vague alphabet-soup of problems.

And it's interesting to see how differently people cope with the hand they're dealt. The deaf student, for example, as long as I could post notes for her, or she could have a note-taker, and as long as she could sit up front (she could read lips to a certain extent, so I was careful to speak clearly and to face her when I spoke), she did fine. If you needed to get her attention, you touched her on the arm. Other than that, it was not a big deal.

Same with the most recent blind student I had. He managed - amazingly, I thought - he walked all over our large campus without a guide, just with a cane and his memory of where things were (and, I'm sure, his sense of hearing; doubtless he could tell when he was walking between two buildings because of the echoes being different, or when he was coming up to a street crossing). I did have to take the exams for him over to our student support office so someone could read the questions to him, and then write down the answers that he gave orally (And I suppose lab was a challenge, but I didn't teach the lab for this particular class). But again: he managed just fine, and didn't seem to expect all kinds of extras over and above the bare minimum needed to help him succeed. (He wound up earning an A in the class. He recorded my lectures and played them back for himself, and he also had a talking laptop with headphones where he could touch-type notes during class).

But then I've had other the person who "needed" a notetaker, and once one was arranged, stopped showing up to class. Because, if they could get someone to do their work, why did they need to make an effort? (That actually led to a mini-scandal: apparently, I wasn't the only prof - and my notetaker not the only notetaker - who had a "parasite" that semester. Several of us approached the disability concerns office with the complaint that, "Our notetakers are feeling taken advantage of" and they did change the rules to stipulate that a student with a notetaker HAS to be present in class unless otherwise excused, because of illness or something.)

And I've also had a few people with some pretty serious learning disabilities...serious to the point where it was unclear that they'd be able to pass the class under their own steam, even with accommodations, and yet, they had dreams of doing things like being a marine biology researcher or a neurobiologist. And while I applaud people having dreams and seems to me to do a person a disservice to tell them, "Oh, you can do ANYTHING you set your HEART to" when that person has a severe enough impairment that they will be highly unlikely to achieve that thing. (It would be like telling me I could be an opera singer, if I just wanted to hard enough: for one thing, I have a very limited range. For another, I have very little power behind my singing voice. And for a third, I have sinus problems severe enough that there'd be a couple months out of the year I could NOT sing).

But people in the school systems pass 'em along, build 'em up, and then leave it to the meeeeeaaaaan eeeeeevvvvvvviiiilll college professors to dash their dreams by "giving" them the D. Or whatever. Or by trying to gently tell them that maybe they want to consider another, lesser, dream.

I don't know. I suppose it's part of the self-esteem movement and all. And on the one hand, it's abusive to a child to tell them they'll never amount to anything, or whatever. But on the other tell someone who has fine motor-skill control issues that, of course, they can become a brain surgeon, seems wildly unfair to me.

It's a very fine line, I guess. You would hope that someone has enough common sense to realize, partway through their college career: I can't take a derivative to save my life, maybe I shouldn't go into engineering. Or, I throw up every time I even think about blood, being a surgeon is out. And yet, there are some people who seem poorly equipped for a field, and yet, they keep striving for it. (I've even seen people who seemed to HATE the field they were going in to, yet they continued to press ahead, which seemed strange to me.)

I was actually planning on being a geneticist rather than an ecologist.

But I decided partway through my junior year, two things:

a. I don't have that great of lab technique. I can do what I need to do for ecology, but I'm awfully good at breaking glassware and my eyes aren't that great for reading pipettes. And my hands shake a little some times, so fine work is sometimes out.

b. I felt I would be emotionally unsuited to doing what I had thought of doing, namely, being a genetics counselor. Having to tell couples, "Well, if you do decide to have a biological child, there is x% chance they will have this painful and life-shortening condition" (And that was even before I contemplated the concept of doctors/counselors being pressured to suggest abortion to women who might be carrying an ill fetus).

So I thought about what else in science I was good at. And I went with that. And I never looked back. And it was a good decision, because the things I am good at in ecology I am really quite good at, and it makes me happy to be able to do them.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with this. It's just, I see a lot of folks who wind up being unhappy because they don't look at their abilities and skills when they are thinking about a career. And they either choose something (often because they read it pays well) that doesn't use a good skill they have, or that requires them to develop a skill that is difficult for them. Or that there are people who are fed great, puffed-up dreams by some people, and who wind up getting upset and lashing out at the person who maybe gently hints to them that that dream isn't really possible.

But that there are other people who think about, "What am I good at?" and "What limits me?" and tries to balance those two things to find something to do with their lives. (And I know of more than one case where someone was on-track for one thing, and then something catastrophic happened - like they lost their sight - where they were able to figure out something new and different and do that.)

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