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NewsAug 29, 2018

‘Disability Allies’ honored for aid to students

Empathy and adaptability make learning more accessible, faculty find.

A group of peple sit in a circle in a room.

By Georgia Sparling

Earlier this year, three faculty members from our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences received Disability Ally Awards in a small ceremony at 11 Mellen St.

Our Office of Disability & Access Services recognized Josh Baldwin, Chris Clark and Kate Hendrix for their “commitment to creating an accessible learning environment for students with disabilities,” according to the office.

“While there are lots of faculty at Lesley who are supportive and helpful, these three are really head and shoulders above what other faculty have done to support students with disabilities,” said Ruth Bork, who recently retired as director of Access Services for Students with Disabilities.

Clark, a senior creative writing lecturer in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says he believes he was selected as one of the three Disability Allies because empathy informs the way he structures his classes.

“I try to imagine myself in the student’s position (and) reconfigure my coursework accordingly,” Clark says. “This often results in benefits not only for the students with disabilities, but also for the students without.”

Clark offers an example of customizing a class exercise for a blind student by asking students to react to stories by using visual literacy-demonstrative responses, rather than words. The accommodation allowed the student to, instead, submit a poem or a song “or some other auditory response, or really to respond in any way that might engage a sense we don’t typically use in that class.”

Chris Clark, Kate Hendrix and Josh Baldwin stand in a row and smile while holding their awards.
From left: Award winners Chris Clark, Kate Hendrix and Josh Baldwin

Lupin Thurrott, a student who nominated Clark for the award, credited the senior lecturer for having “brainstormed ways for me to participate in class when my visual impairment, and a less conscientious teacher, would have made it impossible for me to participate.”

Thurrott, alluding to struggles with depression and anxiety, says Clark makes the classroom feel safe.

“I wish everyone had a teacher like him,” Thurrott says. “He reminds me that I’m worth the effort each time he critiques a piece of writing. He reminds me that my words have value by his constant patience and attitude that, just because my mind plays tricks on me, doesn’t mean that I’m not capable of good.”

Bronwen Tedesco, who graduated the Perkins School for the Blind before coming to Lesley, nominated Clark’s colleague Kate Hendrix. Though her class had been designed with many visual aspects, Hendrix used a 3-D pen to create tactile diagrams, which helped Tedesco.

“She was open to explaining something differently if someone was confused, and she made graphics tactile so that I could be part of the conversation,” Tedesco says. “She was very open-minded and did whatever she thought would help me succeed in her class.”

While some instructors might find the prospect of adapting their courses for students with disabilities daunting, or be unsure of their own capacity to make alterations to the coursework without “losing something in the process,” their trepidation is unwarranted. “Here’s what I realized: every person with a disability is an individual with individual responses to the challenges they face. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to accessibility,” Clark says.

“We have to do our best to make our courses accessible from the get-go, but then we have to be prepared to adapt on the fly based on who is in our classroom. Actually, I think that’s true even if we have no students with disabilities in our room.”