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January 14, 2004

Ready & able

From: The State News, MI - Jan 14, 2004

Professors with disabilities adapt to 'U' setting


The State News

It was the first class of the spring semester, beginning sharply at 8 a.m. Instead of tired eyes and mass silence, students curiously flipped through American Sign Language books and chatted with friends in the Erickson Hall Kiva.

As Lynn Duckwall, professor of American Sign Language, walked in the room, heads turned and the class quieted down.

Duckwall didn't notice the change in volume.

Duckwall, who is deaf, has taught at MSU for more than a decade. She said she has received nothing but positive feedback from students.

"They think I am funny and that the class is wonderful," she said of her students. "They are also able to learn a lot because I am deaf. The number of students (in the class) gets bigger and bigger every year."

Discovering teaching methods that fit both their disabilities and the students they teach has allowed MSU professors who are disabled to work more easily on campus.

Michael Hudson, director of the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, said adjusting to teaching on campus depends on how long a person has lived with a particular disability.

"Adapting to campus is affected by how recent the disability was acquired and how many skills are needed to circumnavigate," Hudson, who is blind, said. "Persistence is the key thing."

Sitting in the front of Duckwall's class is a certified sign language interpreter, Lorraine Auvenshine. Auvenshine was hired through the university to help Duckwall communicate with the students.

Duckwall said it is not difficult for her to teach students who hear, given the fact that she has an interpreter and sign language is how she usually communicates. She also is able to read lips and can speak though she cannot hear her words.

"If it were a different type of class, the methods would be different," she said.

At MSU, professors with disabilities aren't limited to sign language classes. Spanish Professor Donna Goodin, who is blind, has taught at MSU for five years and is working on her doctorate in the language. Goodin said she uses specific materials that assist her in classes.

"The resources are available but not as much as they ought to be," said Goodin. "There are electronic copies of the textbooks, but I prefer Braille copies."

Most of her classes focus on conversation, which can be difficult for some students.

"In some cases, not in all, a student will be very much a visual learner," Goodin said. "Since I emphasize oral activities and verbal skill-building exercises, that student may be at somewhat of a disadvantage."

Psychology junior Elyse Simon, who took Goodin's Spanish 201 class last semester, said she noticed the difference in class procedure, but did not think it was difficult for Goodin to teach a class of sighted students.

"Goodin tends to pay attention more to what students say because that's what she has to rely on," Simon said. "But it was pretty easy for her to teach because she had the respect of the students."

History senior Joey Stalzer, who also took Goodin's Spanish 201 class last semester, said that in the beginning, he thought Goodin would have difficulty controlling the class.

"The thought crossed my mind as a little joke to myself that this would give me free reign to goof off in class," he said. "But it definitely did not because she could recognize our voices. In fact, it was harder to goof off with her than with any other professors."

But deaf and blind professors still encounter unnecessary prejudice, said Melinda Haus, president of the Council for Students with Disabilities.

"I think that they still face barriers," the social work senior said. "So many myths and stereotypes exist in society, which they are breaking down by teaching."

Also dispelling stereotypes is Roy Chen, who instructs teacher education and counseling, educational psychology and special education classes. Chen uses a wheelchair because he has muscular dystrophy.

"I asked the university to install power doors so it's easier to get in and out of the building," he said. "As far as teaching, I ask students to help me set up the overhead projector, computers and tables."

Chen said his students might be apprehensive at first about his condition, but he has not experienced any serious disrespect from students.

"I think on the first day, students look at a professor with a disability, and I'm sure they are surprised," Chen said. "But once they get to know me, it's not a big problem."

Agnes Soriano can be reached at

©2004 The State News