Mobility as a Learning Needs Issue

Mobility as a Learning Needs Issue (PILOT Reflections)

My father has a neck injury that acts up whenever he is immobile for a long period of time. Concentrating or racing the clock aggravates his injury. Getting to sleep can also be a problem.

He has experimented with different seating postures, but what seemed to work best was if he happened to drop off to sleep in the middle of the day in front of the couch, don’t wake him up — it might be the best sleep he would get that day. His desk job with the U.S. Government was seriously impacting his health, although he could split wood with an axe and work like an ox outdoors.

If I knew a student had a similar mobility issue, I would try to schedule several different activities during a class period, letting the students know the general timeframe (so that a student who was feeling discomfort would know when the next change of pace is due). My students seem to welcome “circle games” and other activities that get them out of their seats, though I’m also aware that students who haven’t done the readings welcome any change of focus, so I ration these games so that I’m not doing more than one in any given week of classes.

Circle games work well for classes that involve a lot of discussion, but classes that involve a lot of computer work would be a little harder to accommodate. Establishing small breakout groups, where students can pace, sit on chairs, sprawl across tables, or even use a cluster of couches in a lounge area would help.

If a student has mobility problems that prevent him or her from typing, then tape-recording lectures and using a human note-taker can help with the intake. Output, particularly in a timed classroom exercise, would be another issue. My own handwriting is atrocious, and in the academic crunch times, my carpal tunnel syndrome acts up. My previous department chair had a budget line for technology to prevent repetitive strain injury and other occupational injuries, so he sprang for Dragan Naturally Speaking, a voice-to-speech software package.

I seeded it with my dissertation, a few other academic articles, and the contents of my “sent” e-mail folder, so that it would have a good sense of my vocabulary. My personalized copy knows to capitalize words like Miller and Rice, since I’m less likely to talk about agriculture than about American playwrights. I rather enjoyed leaning back like Commander Adama dictating his log on Battlestar Galactica — my words appearing as if by magic on the screen.

Getting thoughts down on the page is relatively easy, but using only voice commands to format and edit can be tricky. Navigating the web by voice is also a pain. The “fun” factor wore off quickly, and I felt like I wasn’t “breaking even” until I was using the software for more than a month.

Editing the text once it’s on the page can be very tedious — I would generally switch back to the mouse and keyboard, but that’s not an option not available to students with significant mobility impairment. It would make a tremendous difference to let the student know which assignments should be formatted and punctuated properly, and which can be just tossed off without any editing beyond what is necessary for clarity.

Asking that the student use voice-to-speech software is only part of the solution — we can’t have one student dictating her answers into a laptop while everyone else in the room works quietly.

Depending on the degree of mobility impairment, perhaps the student could use a trackball or other pointing device to complete an online quiz. If the purpose of the quiz is simply to make sure the students are doing the readings, I would probably try to rely more on multiple-choice and fill-in-the blank. For the essay questions, perhaps we could just converse in quiet tones while the rest of the students are writing.