CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
Amar Abbott is a doctoral student at Pepperdine University in the Doctor of Education in Learning Technologies program, and an alternative media specialist and assistive technologist at Napa Valley College. In his job, he converts print material into digital material for students with learning disabilities and physical limitations, such as visual impairments. He also teaches students with learning disabilities how to use technologies such as Dragon, Kurzweil, and smartpens to use them to learn proficiently. He works with students and installs trackballs and other assistive devices for students with physical disabilities.
What is unique about your work?
It’s not every job where you get to help people in a profound way on a daily basis, and I feel like my job allows me do that. For example, it happens quite often that I help people gain access to print material for the first time. Recently, I showed a woman, who was in her late 50s or early 60s, Kurzweil assistive technology. For the first time in her life she had access to the written word and it made her cry. She never had that ability or access. She gained this new opportunity and I was there on the sidelines. It’s very emotional to see, and that’s one of the unique (and wonderful) things about my work.
What makes you wake up every morning and want to work on this?
I identify as a learning disability student because I have a learning disability. I share this with the world because I want the stigma around learning disabilities to go away. You’ve got to embrace yourself. Anyway, the ADA regulations came out in 1973, and I started going to school in the mid ‘70s, so the regulations and how they were first implemented directly affected me. When I was young, it seemed that researchers used me as a guinea pig to test their new theories and technologies. In the ‘70s, everything was new and everything had to comply with this law; there was a lot of experimenting going on (on me).
One of the reasons I want to get my doctorate is to make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else. Nobody needs to go through the endless testing that I did.
I understand there is a need for research, but it should be done in ways different than what was done to me. I want to make sure I’m able to support students and prevent what happened to me from happening to others because it affected me so greatly.
Technology is able to support me, and I have access to the tools I need to assist me to do things that I always knew I was smart enough to do. I want to make sure other students like myself also have the support they need. I’m deeply attached to where I am and why I do what I do.
What are you struggling with now?
The thing I see and struggle with is the lack of access to technology for students and students who don’t know how to use technology. Lack of access is one of the major things holding people back. A lot of learning disability students get manual labor jobs because they don’t have the tools they need to be successful in education. I started off as a welder, eventually, when I got the tools I needed, I was able to get access to get further education. Technology is a tool that can help the students do more.
Back to access: “bring your own device” is something that frustrates me. There is a second digital divide that people don’t think about for the assistive technology world. People who need assistive technology need the hardware and the software that makes it possible to use the devices. The technology of standard devices are expensive, and software and hardware for accessible devices are also expensive. This makes the cost divide twice as wide in the world of disability. People don’t seem to see the double divide. People also don’t know the profound negative effects when you don’t have access to the tools you need. I’ve lived it first hand. My first question around bring your own device is: What if the people don’t have the standard technology? Other questions follow: Are you going to lend it to them? Are you going to make it accessible? The additional software (Kurzweil, Dragon) is necessary to help people succeed. I work in a county in California that is pretty well-off, but one of the biggest issues is still access.
What do you see in classrooms that help or hurt students?
Sometimes instructors don’t know how to help students. In every classroom, there can be problems if you don’t work to mitigate them. An instructor really needs to think about what they are asking students to do and if tasks are designed well for all students. Many instructors don’t do that. Universal design can help instructors accommodate their lessons, and is an important framework to always be thinking about. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but not there yet. You should always be designing for universal access. If you do that, it helps professors as well, because it minimizes them having to give special attention to someone–the support is inherent to the design. However, some professors still just see UDL as extra work.
One thing about learners with a disability is that two people with the same diagnosis will be very different in terms of how they interact with the environment. For example, a high functioning person and a lower functioning person can both have the same reading disability, but may need very different things and different kinds of support. Both kinds of people need access to the right resources and support, but the resources and support may be different. As students get the support needed, they can do more. The support may look different, but the goal is to provide whatever it takes.
Sometimes, the students I serve struggle because they’ve been beaten down so long, thinking they aren’t smart enough and can’t do it. Learning disabilities students also have this fear that they shouldn’t be here. It often feels like an uphill battle. It may be a normal thing that all students feel. But disabled students feel like they have been beaten down. I’ve never seen anyone who has a learning disability breeze through confidently. In fact, they often feel that they shouldn’t be able to succeed. (This is one of the things I want to research to understand and then help students.)
You have to show students with learning disabilities and tell them all the time: It’s going to be hard and you have to want to do it, it has to be your will, your heart. That’s what a learner has to do–it has to be in you. As someone with a learning disability, I can tell them all that I have to do to be successful. LD students have to want to be better and then have to work significantly harder to get there. The starting place of feeling beaten down can be hard to overcome, but it’s necessary to succeed and the motivation has to come from within the student. No one and no tool can provide that.
How would you like to contribute back to the cyberlearning community?
There are a few reasons I wanted to get my doctorate. One was to show people that I could do it. A bigger reason was to become a researcher in the area to make sure that people like me don’t have to suffer like I did as a guinea pig in an emerging field. I want to do research in this area. I’m not sure yet how to advance the research, but I want to contribute along the line of improving access to tools and trying different approaches. I want there to be even better technology to help people like me. The tools should help people, but not define people. I think people with disabilities want to be seen as a smart and intelligent people who use these tools, but not to think that the tools make them smart; the tools are necessary, but there is much more to the person than the tools.
I’m happy and willing to be a partner to help others in the community. I want to be a part of something that is going to help the greater good.