Activities to enliven a graduate level class discussion on disability issues?
November 16, 2008 3:22 PM   Subscribe

What are some interesting "activities" I could use to enliven a graduate level class discussion about disability issues? Or general suggestions to enliven a graduate level class where a partner and I have to lead the discussion on this topic...

I am not looking for "tie a blindfold on one person, have another person wear earplugs, and then have them try to do certain tasks" - i would consider those more appropriate for grade school, high school or college. This is a graduate level class (school of ed, generally rigorous) about "race, class, gender, and disability" issues, so we're past the basics.
posted by chr1sb0y to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
you could workshop teaching that exercise to different types of classes or for different purposes.. make it meta, teach about teaching about disability.
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:41 PM on November 16, 2008

Have you already discussed disability theory? Topics of some controversy that may be interesting (but also probably demand some familiarity with the topic) include devotees, transableism, the cripgay community, cochlear implants (what does it mean to identify as Deaf and have an implant?), hierarchies within the community, groups that disagree on whether to identify as disabled (people who are deaf/Deaf, dwarfs, autistic, non-neurotypical), ... point being that there are a lot of theoretical topics that are still not 'solved'.

I realize that's all sort of vague, but without more information on what you're looking for, it's hard to develop those further.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 3:42 PM on November 16, 2008

Something about negotiating urban space? I suppose a graduate seminar isn't going to take a field trip, but how would persons with certain physical disabilities navigate the space in your city? Use of public transport, access to buildings, access to services? What about going to restaurants, renting an apartment? Even a student, getting to school - grade school, high school, university. What does the public school system do in terms of accessibility? Or maybe look at the laws that govern this and when/how they were implemented and the impact on the school system?
posted by citron at 4:09 PM on November 16, 2008

You should look at worker's compensation as a process that revolutionized the modern office and led to the redesign of offices, machines, and thousands of repetitive processes.
posted by parmanparman at 4:31 PM on November 16, 2008

What are your objectives for the class? It would be easier to identify some potentially helpful activities if you could give us some idea of what topics you would like to cover with the students, or what outcomes you are looking for.

Media analysis is always lively - a set of clips from movies or TV, or magazine images, might give you a good platform for discussing perceptions and portrayals of disability.

Mock debate may work, if the students have sufficient information that they can make valid arguments on each side. The cochlear implant/deaf community debate, for instance, is a topic that is polarizing enough to surface lots of assumptions and get people talking passionately.

Case studies are excellent with sophisticated audiences. Present a case study in which some of the issues you want to highlight are prevalent - preferably, something from real life that caused a genuine dilemma among professionals or principals in the story, in which there had to be a course of action decided. Give students the case study ahead of time if you can, or allow time for them to read it in class, or present it step-by-step using a slideshow format - however you need to get the facts of the case into them to process. Then stop at a crucial decision-making point and have students discuss what they would recommend as a course of action and why.
posted by Miko at 4:33 PM on November 16, 2008

-Have a "field trip" where the entire class goes from point A to point B within your campus. Yeah, I know graduate seminars don't typically have field trips, but I don't think this is "beneath" the level of the class. Stop at the bathroom, stop at water fountains. Think hard about the *details* of access. I know this is not a class for beginners - there are many accessibility details that are rarely, if ever, discussed in the classroom. For example: are there paper towels in the bathroom right next to the sink, or would a manual wheelchair user have to get her hands dirty while wheeling over to the towels? Are there large gaps and/or potholes in the floor/ground? Would a powerchair user get stuck? Is there a lowered water fountain? Does it contain enough space underneath it that a wheelchair user could actually wheel up to the fountain (the answer is sometimes no)? Are the doors really heavy? Do the elevators actually work? Is there Braille writing where there should be? Etc.

-Have participants try to design the "perfect" accessible hotel room. This isn't easy, because the accommodations necessary for one person may be nuisances for the next. (Classic example: strobe lights on fire alarms for deaf people are bad for epileptics.) Maybe the participants will conclude that the "perfect" room isn't possible and that multiple types of accessible rooms are necessary. That could be interesting too. What are the limits of accommodation? What about cost? What if it costs much more to accommodate disability X than disability Y? What if disability X is rare? What if the hotel is broke? Are there cheaper ways to accomplish goals that are normally accomplished with expensive technology?

-Come up with well-written, well-reasoned arguments against ableism. For example, an ableist attitude might be that disabled people are "burdens on society", or that anybody who is dependent on another person for care isn't really an adult. Refute these arguments (without just saying "that's wrong").

I fear that these "activities" may be perceived as too juvenile for a graduate level class. Of course you're under no obligation to use any of these suggestions, but I think that often, an activity is as successful and meaningful as the participants make it, and I feel that all of these activities can be discussed with a high degree of nuance.

posted by Cygnet at 4:52 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks - there are some good ideas here - especially along the lines of posing tough/tricky/surprising problems for folks to brainstorm on. Here's some more info:

  • The task of me (and my partner) is to lead class discussion for about an hour.
  • The other students will have read 3-4 articles and research papers on the topic, and most have probably already taken a focused special ed or disability issues class. (I haven't read the articles myself yet - so I can't give any more details on the exact topics.)
  • We want to avoid standing in the front of the room and posing questions, or asking everyone to co-construct definitions of various things - that gets really boring.
  • We want something that will "painlessly" stimulate lively discussion, at 8 pm, after a long day for most of the students.

  • posted by chr1sb0y at 6:10 PM on November 16, 2008

    No offense to the other ideas - but for this class, the problem-posing is probably going to work best, as opposed to field-tripping - though maybe we'll send one group out on a little excursion. Thanks to all for the suggestions - keep them coming!
    posted by chr1sb0y at 6:12 PM on November 16, 2008

    Have you thought about showing film clips re disability themes? Best Years of Our Lives re vets with disabilities. The disability-horror connection -- Unbreakable, Monkey Shines. Supercrip stuff in Murderball. Noble disability stuff ala I am Sam or every TV show re disability. Little people in Wizard of Oz. Mental hospital movies. Disability is huge in art and culture, people can give examples and discuss.
    posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:07 PM on November 16, 2008

    I'm a big fan of the Staring Back anthology -- the short story Coitus Interruptus is high-larious.
    posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:09 PM on November 16, 2008

    If you're looking at disabilities in the media, an interesting thing to consider is when and when aren't the actors actually disabled. For example, Marlee Matlin is a deaf actor portraying deaf characters, but how often does that actually happen? And how does the knowledge that a non-disabled actor is portraying these characters change the perception of the disability? We wouldn't want a white person playing Othello anymore, but we're fine with a seeing person playing a blind character.
    posted by JustKeepSwimming at 7:11 PM on November 16, 2008

    Oh, sorry to spam this page -- but there is also the idea of handing out, thinking about, board game cards re disability, ala Monopoly "Chance" cards. E.g., "Elevator out at subway station, miss job interview." Or, "Insurance won't cover medication, do not pass go." "Waiter asks date for your order, go directly to jail." "No money for attendant care, quit job to get back on SSI."
    posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:15 PM on November 16, 2008

    I didn't realize at first that you're in the school of ed. I'm not quite sure how open your students will be to this sort of thing, but you can make that call. I'd suggest a discussion about current problems in education - funding of IDEA; the "special ed" model (I could go off on that topic for a while - MeMail me if you're curious - but I'll just say that the terminology is pretty awful, and the idea that you can specialize in "special ed" often ignores just how diverse "disabled students" are as a category.); controversies about Deaf residential schools versus mainstreaming, versus, school-in-a-school and bilingual-bicultural models. If you want more practical than theoretical topics, discuss how to work with an interpreter, how to run a classroom without disenfranchising wheelchair users (or others with mobility impairments), accessibility for blind or visually impaired students ...
    posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:26 PM on November 16, 2008

    Let's not just think about students with disabilities. I have a friend who is an educator with MS. She has a mobility assist dog and faces some friction in that she is not instantly recognizable as "disabled."

    So how about some talk about students without disabilities interacting with instructors who have one impairment or another?
    posted by bilabial at 8:57 PM on November 16, 2008

    A course I took on this a while back used the following format...

    First the group were asked to name as many fictional disabled people as they could in five minutes, while the instructor wrote them down. This got people talking and pretty soon everybody was chiming in with "Ironsides!" "Captain Hook!" "Hey what was the blind kid from Little House on the Prairie called?"

    The instructor then led this into a broader discussion about what counts as a disability ("Can we include the seven dwarves? The cast of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest?") and disability stereotyping. ("Now let's divide all these characters into goodies and baddies and see what Hollywood's telling us.")

    The next exercise actually used a picture book as a starting point. The instructor presented images from Winnie the Witch and used it as a jumping off point for discussing the medical model of disability versus the social model. The story is about a witch who lives in a black house with a black cat which is hard to see, so she keeps treading on it. She initially decides there's something wrong with the cat, but at the end of the story she solves the problem by painting the house in different colors so the cat is no longer in a disabling environment. (Although the pre-schooler version doesn't use those exact words!)

    The instructor then led an informal discussion with heavy use of personal stories and anecdotes from disabled friends. This section covered invisible disabilities, unusual disabilities, people's tendency to assume disabled = wheelchair user, how quickly the acceptable terminology changes and how you can use the social model to circumvent that. (Don't ask 'What's wrong with you?' Ask 'Is there anything you need?') We also discussed politicised diabilities (deafness vs Deafness, aspies vs NTs) the point at which a disability becomes a culture and the duty of care to these who prefer to hide or downplay a disability.

    Finally there were some statistics, legal facts and discussion of how to apply this to our organisation. The last part was a little dull, but otherwise the instructor gave pretty good workshop.
    posted by the latin mouse at 12:56 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

    You may be way ahead of me already with these, but:

    For small groups:

    --ask them to come up with "multimodal" ways a teacher could present a given topic or hypothetical assignment that would accommodate a range of disabilities

    --pairs of students pretend to be parents of a child who is eligible for cochlear implants. You (the instructor) and another participant (maybe your colleague rather than another student) take on the roles of Deaf Culture advocate and cochlear implant advocate. You each make the rounds of the couples making your respective pitches and discuss the decisions each couple makes. Sounds a little unstructured--and it is--but I participated in something like this and it was pretty great. Depends on the group as well I'm sure...

    It can also be fun to ask for examples from pop culture--comics, movies, tv--of people with disabilities and discuss what basic types they fall into.

    Also also, a discussion of ideas for universal design can be fun. Use curb cuts and wider doors as examples and talk about other accommodations in design that do or could benefit everyone.
    posted by mundy at 6:23 AM on November 17, 2008

    I'm working with Chrisboy on this project. Thanks for some great suggestions!

    I'll add a bit about the focus of the articles that the class read (or was supposed to read) in preparation for this class. The articles focused on both stigma and eugenics as an historical and current issue. The education portion of the readings was on the sorting and classification of students by schools to meet the institution's needs. The question and definition of "normal" is also a recurring theme.

    I like the tie in proposed by some commenters to pop culture in a discussion of characters and actors representations. This focus could include some of the other issues for this class titled Race, Class, Gender, and Disability in America and hasn't really been done yet this semester.

    We present Tuesday so would still welcome additional comments and ideas. Thanks!
    posted by Kathryn J at 8:45 AM on November 27, 2008

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