Sunday, March 15, 2009

Culture Shock: Learning Disabilities

Autism. Aspberger. OCD. ADD. ADHD. Tourette's. Bipolar. You name it, someone in the game industry has it. Probably several someones, and probably at least one someone who is incredibly successful.

For this reason, it's hard for me to even call these "disabilities" -- given that the word "disabled" literally means that the person is not able to do something, and clearly it is possible to make games regardless of what psychological label might be applied to someone. But then, I'm not a psychologist.

For the most part, people in the game industry don't care if you've been diagnosed with anything, as long as you can help them make great games. You could be criminally psychotic for all we care, as long as it doesn't impact the development schedule. (Okay, I exaggerate. But only slightly.)

So, it took me by surprise the first time a student gave me this little slip of paper from the campus office of disabilities, several years ago (I've since gotten used to this ritual; it seems there's always at least one per class, and usually more).

For those of you who have not taught before, here's how it works: the student brings you this paper that gives you (as the teacher) no practical information, except to tell you that the student requires some special privilege (commonly, extra time and privacy when taking exams). You have to sign it -- in all the places I've taught, I've never been allowed to keep a copy -- and then the student takes it back. Presumably it gets filed somewhere, I don't know.

And then, naturally, you forget about it, because you're not allowed to keep a copy. Until exam time comes, and you remember that two of your students have special requirements, but you can't remember which students (many students with so-called "disabilities" are quite high-functioning), and one of them might have dropped your class a few weeks back anyway. Oops. I've been doing this for a few years and I still manage to screw this up most of the time.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that you're given no information about how to teach more effectively. I understand and accept that we're dealing with confidential information on a need-to-know basis, and I will often be getting the bare minimum of relevant information. But this conflicts with a desire to teach properly, and if I know that (for example) talking more slowly or repeating myself will help or hurt the situation, or if making my lecture notes available is useful, or if I should avoid calling on a student in class because it would embarass them... well, it'd be good to know, but there's no way for me to find out without a confidentiality breach.

The obvious thing to do in these situations is to talk to the student directly, and simply ask if there's anything you can do... but often the student doesn't know, because they aren't a professional educator.

Best solution, I suppose, is to take matters into my own hands. Read books on as many of these disabilities as I can find, particularly any that might give clues on how to teach better, and hope for the best.


GordonG said...

Teaching students with special needs gets easier the more you do it. Obviously, you are not exposed to more severe disabilities, but the "milder" disablilities (ADD,etc) can usually be addressed in lesson planning. *Important note here, Ian - You should write down those students names! :P Also remember to teach to multiple styles of learning - visual, aural, tactile, etc.

Anonymous said...

Oh, they're definitely disabilities. Every one of those puts an individual in a state where they are unable to do something like a standard student.

ie: Learning disability hindering the true average learning curve. I'm not able to learn like the average.

Don't worry about changing the way you teach. If I have problems keeping up, let me come to you with the hopes that you would spend the extra time with me. Make that apparent when your semester starts, and leave it at that. If you try to help the 1% that learn slow (for example), the other 99% will go nuts and not show up. Make that 1% comfortable to come talk to you after class if they need it.

The best way to teach someone that has a common disability like I have (learn slow) is to keep things practical/hands on.

Make your student(s) come to you 1 week prior to an exam to remind you if you're not getting paperwork. If it's that important to them, they will remind you (as i've had to do in the past). My campus actually gave a letter to the professor explaining the disability.

It's not about what the industry thinks about my disability. It's about what grade I get in your class. If I can't get above a 3.0 that becomes a real problem for your students post graduation when the industry starts to have a raised eyebrow toward what they did in school. Academics is far from the real world practical nature of things.

Jill E. Duffy said...

Making your notes available is beneficial not only for disabled students, but also students whose first language is not English ("L2 students") and students with different learning styles. It is considered good practice and is supported by much research in the field of English composition.

Jimmy J said...

Hi Ian,

I teach @ a non profit that works with people with brain injuries. It is a challenge and I'm relatively new to it. I've found that once you find their way of learn, it becomes much easier, basically requires the observation of an artist the disciplinary and motivation of drill sergeant...basically it involves time of building a relationship, and finding out all the factors that cause them to drift.