Unlearning: Graduate School with a Disability

Forget everything you’ve learned. Forget the routine you’ve sank into that was finally working.  Forget the cycle you got into in the four years of your first degree.  Forget easy to find books. Forget conversations that make sense.  Forget everythigng you’ve learned


Despite being smart, and driven, and talented, and kind, and fun, and resilient (whatever that means) I still struggle endlessly, every week, to navigate university.  University, and even further and specifically: Graduate School.


Graduate school is a learning curve for everyone from the amount of readings, deadlines, pressure to be successful, pressures in general, and not to mention the actual understanding of the content of said degree.  Then there’s presentations, social events, parties, networking, professional writing and conferences, work related to school, work not related to school, and then just personal life balance and self care in there too.  Graduate school in any area is difficult.


Now imagine that every time you opened a new PDF document for a reading for a class you had to learn how to navigate that document (if it is even in the right place or exists at all).  Imagine for every presentation you had to learn what the professor was expecting and also how to do this inspite of and in tandem with your disability.  Imagine having to unlearn every activity, at every moment, because that is the nature of Graduate work:  it is constantly changing.  In a world where my vision isn’t constant, where the way that I navigate learning changes from literally every piece of information task and moment to another I have to adapt whole-heartedly non-stop to every obstacle and then hope to succeed.


I remember in my first year, freshly blind, writing my first blog post about “jumping off the cliff.”  It was in reference to speaking in class, when I was terrified to give my opinion for the fear of it being wrong.  Now I’m always wrong and I don’t shut my mouth because that’s one way that I learn.  I jump off the cliff just walking down St. George st. (where I have almost been wrongfully hit by cars on multiple occaisions).  I jump off the cliff in preparation for every presentation (which I am doing this week for two) because they are always, constantly, different.


Tonight I sat down with my ipad to open a PDF document of the readings I had to do.  Readings that, admittedly, I’ve been having a lot of just pure and simple understanding problems (nothing to do with the bind thing) lately, and a PDF is not the chosen form of this text it is an anthology novel that the rest of my class has.  I went to open it, and after searching University of Toronto’s Accessibility Portal for half an hour, and then scrolling through the document I had already downloaded squinting trying to find Voltaire’s five pages that are required, and failing, I moved on to an e-text, which is accessible but small and needs a constant zoom and finger transition to make sure I can see the full page and even when I found those documents the system wouldn’t let me open it.  So I resigned to just doing a part of my readings from technology issues.  My reading time has gone up to 20 pages per hour people, this is progress.


And this happens to me every night. These aren’t chosen obstacles, I am constantly dealing with new things to worry about.


And I do complain, because I am entitled to it, and I try not to apologise for it, and I don’t do it every day.


But I am a good student and it is unfair that I have to struggle to access what I need, and creatively solve problems like how to present presentations that I can only do in two days that should be memorized and I cannot read off of cue cards, or reading a biography to introduce someone for a class but stutter because my vision craps out half way through.


Or the recent issues I’ve been having with research methodologies that pertain to my specific mediated view of my research, because of my literal obstruction in my eyes.  I cannot see the faces of my research subjects.  I cannot see the words on the microfilm.  What do I do? Who do I turn to?


I am a good student. This is unfair.  So what? So what?  I’m writing this because its something that I think about, and its unfair that I feel embarrassed for typing an explanation.  So what? So WHAT?  Being a student is a PRIVELEDGE.  Being a student is CHALLENGING already. Being a student TAKES TIME and EFFORT and MONEY.  It takes MENTAL ENERGY.  It also gives so much substance that none of us can explain.  But when you are fighting through foggy, unclear, half-assed vision—fighting—fighting—every day to just tred water like your peers… Well, what can I describe? How could I? So what?


Every day is an unlearning.  Every day I think I’ve got it.  I wake up and I think IT’S A MORNING DAY and I walk to school and out the door I trip up a stair or give the barista a loonie not a toonie and that’s before the schooling starts.  I walk into my classroom and I hide how terrified I might be and how embarrassed and frustrated I am that I have to constantly ask my small amount of students their names, but am so happy to be there.  These kids need to see a graduate student like me TAing a class about acting, about critical thought, challenging them.


I can challenge.  I can think critically.  I can teach.  I can demand and articulate and fight.


Graduate school hasn’t done this to me, but it has amplified it, it has brought it so boldly to my attention that I cannot ignore it and now it bubbles up through my work and emails after class about things I should’ve brought up in class and then into class and soon I won’t feel so weird saying “well from my blind perspective my experience of performances are different” because that’s the easiest part of my day, ironically.  I feel most authentic and powerful and strong when I can state, very proudly, that I can’t see everything and that is perfectly totally wonderfully brilliantly okay.


But the fight, which is never eneding, and has no solution, changes every day and I do it, because I have to.


xx Jess


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