Category Archives: disability

Success is Spelled Like

“You will be deemed incompetent in your field if you continue to write the way you write.”

“I always thought from your emails that you were dyslexic – I just didn’t want to say anything.”

“You’re an A-grade student on your content and an E or F on spelling and grammar.”

…..

When I was little my mother made me do writing practice constantly. She kept a spelling journal, and every time I spelt a word wrong I would have to sit back down again and write it out three times, five times, ten. I wrote lines, Bart Simpson-style, as a punishment for bad behaviour – 20, 50 100. I remember that once I changed the text of the line because I couldn’t spell one of the words she’d asked for, and she made me write the whole hundred out again (the word was cacophony, and I was 8 – high pressure household)!

It didn’t work anyway – I have never been able to spell.

So why not?

A few years ago the New York Times published an article about aphantasia, or blindness in the mind’s eye. It was me! I make no mental images, I see only the world in front of me, and until my teens I had never really understood that anyone else had a different experience. I wrote – badly – to the nice scientists doing the experiments and they sent me their tests, which very firmly confirmed that this is the way my mind works. I’ve also been recently delighted to learn that my very dear Aunt experiences it too, so maybe there’s a genetic element to it? Seeing nothing internally makes me incredibly good at remembering conversations, skim reading, spotting patterns, and organizational thinking. It gives me tremendous difficulty with geography, remembering faces and, apparently, spelling.

One of the tests they ask you to do to see whether you have aphantasia is they ask you to picture a house in which you have spent a long period of time, and count the windows. Most people will picture the house and walk around it internally or externally, counting as they go. I had to do it narratively: “ok, so I get home and I go through the back door and there’s a toilet by the back door is there a window in the toilet I think so because I’ve watered plants there, and then I go into the kitchen and I know I can look out the window as I pour the kettle and do the dishes so that makes two more and…” and despite my best efforts I forgot the existence of two whole rooms in a house where I lived for ten years.

It’s pretty much the same way with words. I can’t see them. I read extensively and furiously for work and pleasure, but I can’t call up a picture of a word in my head. I usually write in a kind of flow state, knowing that if I challenge myself on a particular word and its (it’s?) spelling I will be unable to determine whether it is right or wrong without spell check and Google. As an instructor I dread the moment when I have to turn around and write complicated words on the blackboard because I have absolutely no idea whether or not I’m getting it right or not, and I dread the day that I freeze in front of my class because someone has asked me to spell “pressure” (a word I almost always bail on) and I crack under the… strain.

Why am I writing about this? Because I remember one of the first arguments I had with a co-teacher was whether I should grade my students on the spelling and grammar of their writing or on their comprehensible fluency. I teach a huge number of students who speak English as an additional language, or who write a form of English that is not the standardized norm, and I know that the decision about how to grade student writing has huge impact on the power we give to race, class, and educational privilege in our classrooms, and since I have a pronounced RP English accent it can surprise people how fervently I argue that if I can understand it, I’ll grade it just fine.

In an educational system that simply does not teach students how to write academically unless they come from extremely advantageous circumstances, teachers in higher education have to have strategies for dealing with multiple forms of English and students who don’t know how to write. I know how to write. I may be a first-generation student, but I went to an intensely good grammar school and I took essay subjects at A-level, which means I have all the tools at my disposal for crafting academic arguments. My brain just won’t let me spell. It means, however, that I can empathise with the students who haven’t got the tools that I’ve got, which to me means aiming for “can I understand you” rather than “are you writing perfect, standardized English.” I’m also lucky to be in a field in which experimental writing is supported, and can thus recognize the beauty in a grammar, syntax and flow that is not my own.

It also means that I can be a model for students who think that their writing capacity defines their potential in higher education, or as a scholar. I am a PhD student, I have lectured internationally at university level, my writing has been published in field journals (they give you editors when you publish in journals, it is AMAZING), and I keep this blog, which is read all over the world. Students, I can’t give you much advice for getting over issues with writing, because I haven’t got over mine, I’ve just got better at faking it (except that my spell check now corrects into both American AND English spelling seemingly at random and it is a PAIN). But I can tell you that your voice is valuable, and what you have to say is worth saying. Don’t let anyone tell you that your dialect or your spelling or your grammar has to match a certain standard for what you write to be worth reading, or that it can stop you from doing what you want to do.

Teachers, I understand that especially before university level there’s a world of standardised testing that gets in the way of adopting a comprehensibility-model of grading. I urge you to offer your students opportunities to gain credit for their own speech, as well as teaching them the standard. Ask whether your students have the tools to write a certain way, and if they don’t, is it worth blaming them for the failures of an educational system we know is chronically underfunded and a curriculum with gaping flaws? Ask how we can raise up the voices of students who take their grade as a measure of their worth, and how we can reward conviction, clarity, poetry and power, as well as spelling and formal rhetoric. From someone who can’t write, to all of you who can: keep trying, you can do it, I can’t picture it, but I believe in you.

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Head Connections: Mental Health in the Dance Classroom

It’s the start of the new semester, hoorah!

Time to plan classes, make syllabi, greet new friends and old, and – for a large number of people – it’s time for the awkwardness, anxiety, and general discomfort and threat of getting your accommodation list approved by all your new professors, something that can be particularly difficult for students with invisible needs.

A few years ago statistics showed that in America, for every 1000 students with a disability only 87 would complete an undergraduate degree. That’s appalling. Unpacking those numbers is a complicated process involving cultures of stigma, the medical vs social model of disability, the mind-bending cost of the American healthcare system, the hideous pressure on teachers – adjunct teachers in particular – lack of education about inclusive classrooms… I could go on. In fact I do, I talk about this stuff at conferences and in pedagogy classes and in staff meetings and I co-founded a resources and information network within my own university. But anyway, some more figures:

The Guardian newspaper found that in the UK 87% of first-year university students struggle to cope with the stress of the transition to higher education. 60% say that the main stress is studying, while other issues include isolation, living independently, and financial difficulty. Students with mental health conditions have the highest drop out rate of any disability group in the US – 37%. In 2016 it was found that 78% of British students reported mental health problems over the course of one year, and 33% experienced suicidal thoughts.

Joe Booth, a UK activist, has been gaining support for his Take The Stress Out of Studying (TSOS) campaign, calling for standardized tests to be replaced with “a well-resourced, publicly accountable system, which supports and educates individuals by engaging them rather than pressuring them.” The most recent TSOS blog post, which can also be seen as a close-captioned video here, reports that 48% of 12-year-olds in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week. By the age of 16, 70% report feeling this way at least once a week, and 22% report having negative feelings as often as once a day.

Why all these numbers? Because I’m about to start speaking from personal experience. I know that as soon as someone with a mental health condition starts talking about mental health there’s a strong tendency from people to dismiss them, or to assume that they’re over-exaggerating the problem. I’m not. These numbers are the proof – if you need it – that mental health in our education system is in utter crisis. Now I want to talk to you about some of the things that crisis does.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and PTSD. I experience panic-inducing, frequently debilitating flashbacks, which can be accompanied by hyper-vigilance, depression, suicidality, nausea, disassociation, shaking… the list goes on. How often I experience flashbacks can vary from daily to weekly to monthly, and they can easily last a whole day, sometimes more. I started having panic attacks several times a day when I was 17, I have been on and off medication. I do not receive formal accommodations from my university. I am a final year PhD student.

I hid my mental health issues for around decade because I was ashamed of them. One of the main ways I justified this to myself was “I don’t need help because I’m doing fine in school.” If I could submit every assignment, pass every test, get to class… I didn’t need help. I never questioned the COST of submitting every assignment, passing every test, going to every class… because in my mind I could stop having mental health issues if I just worked harder. I could control them, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But paying that cost every day had – of course – a crushing effect on my mental health. And then I stopped being able to do those things.

Dance valourises physical virtuosity. Dance champions the idea that the body is intelligent, versatile, adaptive, and capable. Dance does not do so well with the idea that your brain can incapacitate your body. Dance thinks of itself as a healing modality, one which you practice to get more healthy, happy, wise and well.

My biggest problem is not with academic or written work – there’s usually enough time given to those assignments that I can find some way to get around them. My biggest problem is that during a flashback I should not dance. Doing so makes my skin crawl, makes me want to vomit, makes me want to curl up on the floor. Dancing forces me to do the opposite of what I need to do, which is stop, listen to my self, and allow myself to come back to a place that I feel safe in again. The pressure from dance as an institution is that dance class IS a safe place, and if I would just try and be present and in tune with my body then the problem would go away. It doesn’t. Interestingly, ballet is slightly easier than other forms because I know what’s coming in a class. I know I CAN get through a class or, in fact, hold down a performing career. But I need to be able to make choices about when to make myself keep going, when to do less, and when to make myself completely stop.

Trying to tell dance teachers about this problem:

“So you have some feelings…”
“No, I have a panic disorder.”
“So you have some big feelings.”

“It doesn’t look from the outside like there’s a problem.”

“Why don’t you just start class, because you’re not injured, and just see how you go?”

“But you seem so happy.”

“I understand, sometimes I feel terrible too, but dancing always helps.”

“If you’re sat on the side you need to be watching and writing and to hand that in at the end so I can see you’re still engaged with the class.”

Sigh

All of these responses are very well intentioned, but all implicitly ask me to accommodate to the class by admitting that I need less.

In contrast, the absolute best response that I have had from a dance teacher whom I went to about this problem was this:

I don’t understand the problem, but I trust you. I will not ask you why you’re sitting out of my classes. You can tell me if you want to. You can answer questions or offer observations from the side or not as you are capable. But I will accept your assessment of what you can and can’t do on the expectation that you will do as much as you can, and that is healthy for you. If you want to walk out of the class at any point and go home, you can do that too.

I can already hear teacher’s hackles rising. I know the argument you want to make: “but what if students just use this as an excuse to get out of class whenever they’re feeling tired or stressed?” “What if what they really need is the encouragement to just try a little harder?” “What if they miss so much class that then they can’t do the work?” “I understand that YOU want to try hard and do everything, but most students, if we give them that option, will start missing class left right and center just because they’re having a bad day, and they’ll never get jobs or graduate.”

To which my answer, frankly, is: then make your classroom one that students want to be in, and your content things that they want to learn. Set clear expectations about what you want every student to know and be able to do, and hold them all to that, rather than their ability to be physically present in the room. If students aren’t doing as much as they can, their grade will drop. That’s not your problem. Your problem is giving everyone the opportunity to learn and the space for their efforts towards learning to be fruitful. If your students are not meeting your expectations, you can instigate a process to ensure they do so, and hold them accountable to that, but first you have to believe in what they say they can and cannot do, and what they need to do the things you want.

It is not a teacher’s job to decide what a student’s internal experience of mental health actually is, or what accommodations they need. This gets us into the dangerous territory of “psychological ownership” – a term coined by Julia Gleich and which we blogged about together a few years ago. In a nutshell it means that while you may have educational authority over a group of students, it does not mean you have authority over their lived experience. Teacher’s set expectations for learning and professionalism, and students work out how to meet those expectations, or if those expectations are unreasonable and need negotiation. Again, I hear the problem “but I don’t have the time to design thirty different classes and thirty different rules for thirty students based on their needs.” So don’t. Design a class that meets a broad range of needs, minds, and bodies upfront, and then only adjust for the unexpected. Mental heath issues should be expected in every single university classroom at this point, and failure to plan for them in the face of the statistics above is just asking for more work later. Build inclusivity into your syllabus and your classes and you benefit everyone, including yourself.

Some specific suggestions: at the beginning of each semester teachers usually set out expectations for what students should do if they are injured or sick. What if they added expectations for a mental health event? I’ve heard of teachers bringing red beanbags to class so that students could signal “don’t call on me today.” You could call one part of the class the quiet corner. Red socks mean, “I’m doing as much as I can, but that’s not everything.” Students who have disclosed a mental health condition can leave, and make up the time in another class, or by submitting a physical practice journal/video. Have an exercise that doesn’t involve touching as a ready backup to partnered touch work. Bring mental health out into to light of your classroom, and kill the stigma faced by individuals who overwhelmingly feel like they’re a burden, and alone.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but one more point: I’m a grad student. Grad students also teach. In my institution you are not supposed to cancel classes, and I teach a lecture course, which requires a lot of preparation to sub. That means that I frequently get up and teach while mid-flashback, and let me tell you that is not something you ever want to have to do. Funnily enough some of my best performance reviews come from my worst days because I’m so in control of my breathing, my affect, my pacing etc. Mental health issues have taught me to be a better, and sought-after instructor. Teachers have mental health issues too, and I am not trying to set up a binary or an opposition with this post. But when it comes to teachers I don’t really have any answers for how to tackle the problem at a cultural or institutional level, and I think that changing the culture for students might lead to some.

In the end I want more people to be able to be in more classrooms, learning what they love. I want more people to be able to talk about the mental health crisis in academia and how it affects them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to pay the dreadful costs of hiding and silence until they can’t pay anymore. I want dancers and dance teachers to value excellence and professionalism as personal qualities, not as scripted performances. I want everyone reaching out to be seen as an authority on their own experience, without feeling like they have to play down their needs, or like they have to play their needs up in order to deserve help.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

P.s. A note on responses.

This blog has a lot of readers, who give me both support and backlash. I always appreciate both as long as they’re considerate of the fact that there’s a human being on this end of the keyboard.

I just disclosed a lot of mental health stuff that I don’t usually talk about. I am aware of the risks of doing that just as I go on the job market! I hope that people will employ me for my skills and abilities as a dancer and teacher, and – like I said – trust my capacity to do any job that I apply for. I am not unique for what I can do with these conditions – I am just one voice of a very common problem. I have amazing friends, I go to therapy, I have the support I need to make my voice heard, and I hope it chips away at the walls in front of other people.

Image from the Guardian’s series of sketches inspired by the university mental health crisis.

This is what a dancer looks like… Why not a ballerina?

There was a bit of a furore in the UK press this week: a young girl named Pollyanna was entered into her ISTD ballet exam, and came out with a Pass. Her parents were disappointed because the rest of the class had achieved Merits and Distinctions… but then the rest of the class weren’t dancing on an artificial leg. Parents Sarah and Christopher had asked the ISTD in advance to make “reasonable adjustments,” and felt that they’d been let down, and they had… but not by the examiner.

The comments on the article in The Telegraph ranged from the deeply empathetic to the misunderstanding to the deliberately spiteful. Most focussed on the politics of disability: accessible spaces, adjusted grading, giving everyone a chance… or not as the case may be. A couple of people even went so far as to say that ballet is a particular thing and that particular thing was unobtainable by a disabled body. So first of all, let’s clean that up before it goes any further, and then we’ll look at what the main problem was with Pollyanna’s ballet exam.

No-one’s sure what ballet is. Literally.

I have recently returned from a conference of the world’s top dance scholars, and we had arguments and debates and history and culture and FAR too much coffee and all along we KNEW that we don’t know what ballet “is.” We know the history of ballet (although most people get it wrong), and we know that ballet has some no-good-very-bad problems with imposing an aesthetic standard on the body and what beauty looks like. We also know that there’s a large number of people doing a kind of ballet that’s not tied to a stereotypical body, to narrative, to “classical” music or to a set vocabulary of steps. To give an example, Irreverent Dance, a queer, a-typical-bodied dance studio has just found the funds for a permanent space to teach ballet classes (and other things). So there is ballet out there that doesn’t give a toss what people THINK that ballet is, ok? Get thee to google.

Moving on.

I’m going to make the assumption that at least some of the people reading this blog have never taken a UK-style syllabus-based ballet exam, or even know what one is, and explain first of all what it was that Pollyanna walked into. While some studios offer independent, free-form dance classes by age group, where material might change from week to week or show to show, with children progressing by age/experience/ability, the majority of teachers follow a syllabus of graded examinations. The major boards in the UK are the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) and ISTD (International Society of Teachers of Dance), and let me tell you now that I’ve taken an awful lot of exams in both.

To take these exams, you go into a room in a group of about four (ish, less-so at the higher grades etc.), without your teacher, and perform a series of set exercises. You are marked on how well you do the exercises: technique, performance, general presentation and accuracy. You get marks for politeness, for curtseying at the right time and for having your ribbons done up right, “A polite and well-groomed candidate” was a standard phrase on the reports of my childhood. But back to those exercises.

You have to get them right.

You have to do the right steps in the right order at the right time to the specified music, which means that what teachers usually do is teach only those exercises, particularly in the run up to exams. This is at the heart of why the ISTD didn’t make adjustments for Pollyanna: their whole grading system is based on the performance of a set of exercises, from which any deviation results in a decrease in marks. When your leg is “frozen” (her father’s words) and you cannot do certain things involved in your exercises, the most suitable accommodation to make is to change the exercise in order to demonstrate your technical understanding and performance quality another way. But THAT’S the accommodation that the ISTD just doesn’t make.

This is the heart of what’s wrong with syllabus training overall: it promotes one very particular way of stringing together steps, the technique necessary to perform those steps in that order, and very little understanding of the variability inherent in ballet and performance. Over history, time and place the performance of ballet and the ideals of technique have changed according to bodies and fashion. Individuals have danced a revolution in what it means to perform ballet, driving forward the possibilities for what we can do and how we can put it on stage. Syllabus training does not truly accommodate the fact that everyone’s body does ballet differently, whether they have a disability or not, and as such often produces dancers who cannot adapt to the fluidity and choice-making needed to succeed in the professional dance world.

America is another story. In the USA, syllabus training is only just beginning to get a foothold, thanks to lobbying from the School of American Ballet and the creation of their own training syllabus. Ballet in America is driven by choreography and performance, by mastery of the skills required by a piece, rather than the checklist of steps and sequences needed to pass an exam. This approach produces very different dancers – of course with their own habits and issues, but with an attitude as well as a physicality that’s worlds away from the syllabus based model.

I wholeheartedly urge parents looking for an accessible ballet class to find someone giving a class that your child wants to take, and which puts no limits on their possibility for achievement. There is someone out there who will choreograph classwork based on your child’s physical capabilities; who will structure their training to enable them to learn, and provide standards of assessment that facilitate their need for evaluation and progression. What’s more, they’ll be engaged and enthusiastic about making that happen and be passionate that what you’re doing is really, ballet, yes really. Don’t let anyone tell you what ballet “is,” go out and find the ballet that’s right for you. I hate to share a soppy video, but sometimes that means having to go out and demand it.

That sounds like I think Pollyanna’s parents were lazy, or have an obligation to do the work, I really, really don’t. I think the teacher should have explained the exam system, and how their daughter would be graded before they decided to subject her to that system. I think the ISTD should be transparent about the fact that they will only make certain kinds of adaptations. I think the dance community should be pro-active about directing potential students to a class that will keep them dancing, even if it means giving up on some class fees. I’d like a moment here to point out the incredible work of Cando 2, and others working to provide exceptional training to young dancers with disabilities but also to ask why the ballet world hasn’t really stepped up to the plate in that regard to provide sustained, accessible training for children and young people at both a hobby and pre-vocational level. Come to think of it, let’s get more ballet classes available low-cost and for free, so that we can get over that nasty class barrier while we’re at it, and don’t get me STARTED on the whole racial divide thing…

I’m a ballet-lover, in case you couldn’t tell. I’ve also spent nearly a decade working with children with various disabilities. I see absolutely no reason that Pollyanna should have felt forced to stop doing the ballet that she loved, and I’m saddened she felt that there was no space for her in the major balletic institutions of the UK. No space for people with disabilities is a common problem, and one that’s only going to get worse if current austerity measures go ahead. With such a powerful media platform at his disposal, I URGE Christopher Hope to keep demanding that space, and those fundamental human rights that are being persistently removed and denied. I also urge the dance world to work a little harder at making that space for the next generation of artists, and to think long and hard about what dance class ought to be for.