Radwa Younis was born with Ritinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease that ultimately leads to blindness. Radwa is now 34, visually impaired, but has completed her BA, postgraduate diploma, Cambridge Delta and become a CELTA tutor. All of this has been done in a part of the world which offers little for those with special needs. That alone is a message for others with disabilities and impairments.
I trained Radwa as a CELTA tutor on the first course at a new centre in New Cairo, Egypt. Radwa had become the head of in-service training at the institution and had been approved for training on the grounds of her qualifications and experience. She had been honest and open about her disability, but I had no idea of the extent of the impairment until I met her. I had worked with blind and visually impaired teachers and students before, but this was a new challenge, not the least because, on arrival, I found the facilities for the course far from ideal.
To categorise those with disabilities is an impossible task. There are too many variables, and, as we are led to believe as educators, every learner is different. I seem to have developed a simplistic distribution of the disabled along a continuum from the independent to the needy, possibly based on encounters with those who believe they can and those who believe they canâ€™t. I have a mild disability myself which requires the use of a crutch for balance and support. I have learnt to live with it, deal with it and occasionally use it to my advantage, which, I suspect, is what those who believe that they can, do.
One would like to encounter situations like this with full information, but it is likely that optimal decisions are replaced by a series of â€˜judgement callsâ€™. To offer help or wait to be asked? To openly assist or possibly appear condescending? This uncertainty is also likely to be mutual, as Radwa confirms:
â€˜â€™When you have special needs you always feel like a burden unless assured otherwise. You always feel lonely when everyone around you does not go through the same challenges you face every day, so being the only visually-impaired member in a team working on a demanding intensive course, I feel shy to ask for extra support and I feel it is my responsibility to adapt quietly.â€™â€™
Like many with a disability, Radwa has had to make her way relatively unassisted, developing her own coping strategies, possibly unaware that help is available in either personal or technological forms:
â€˜â€™Having been raised and educated in a developing country that provides little or no support for people with special needs, I have never been consciously aware of the strategies I have developed to overcome my disability. This became evident at the start of my CELTA trainer-in-training programme when Steve Darn, my supervisor, asked me what coping strategies I would use. The only formal assistance I had previously had was the provision of larger font papers during exams, and recently, when sitting IELTS and Delta Module 1 exams, an extra time allowance.â€™â€™
For Radwa, training as a CELTA tutor was a new challenge which she approached with unusual apprehension on the grounds that teaching and training are different in that others are dependent on her performance. She was concerned that her impairment would affect the pace of the course or disadvantage the trainees in some way. For myself, decisions needed to be made regarding how much consideration to give to enable Radwa to tutor effectively without affecting the flow or effectiveness of the course. Fortunately, there is flexibility in the way that CELTA courses are delivered, and, ultimately, Radwa required little support. She would:
– ask trainees to submit their lesson plans at least couple of hours before the lesson to give her time to read them in advance at her own pace.
– conduct immediate oral feedback and delay written feedback to give herself time to write thorough comments.
– use her tablet camera to view traineesâ€™ boardwork. She has learnt to use technology to meet her needs and now does everything on her iPad. She writes feedback and marks assignments using the Apple Pencil and uses the speech to text option to skim through assignments before marking and writing comments.
Ideally, Radwa needs access to a wireless printer and, because she is print-disabled, specially formatted books such as those provide by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
Since her training and subsequent approval, Radwa has worked on seven CELTA courses, mainly at overseas centres. Inevitably, she has many stories, some gratifying, others disturbing, but mostly confirming research from the RNIB which found that the biggest barrier facing blind and partially sighted people is the lack of knowledge and understanding, and outdated attitudes from people around them. Some of her most salient comments include:
When doing CELTA abroad, I would need someone to show me around and help me go to the supermarket to buy my basic needs to survive. I never asked for this kind of help because I fear I would lose the job, or I reject the offer fearing I wouldn’t be able to survive in that foreign country.
â€˜â€™ people have always been very nice and supportive, but the point is I have never asked for much.â€™â€™
â€˜â€™ Trainees are usually more than understanding and appreciative. They always admire my resilience, find me inspiring and I always feel positive around them.â€™â€™
â€˜â€™As far as MCTs (main course tutors) are concerned, well, some of them were supportive and reassuring and I really enjoyed working with them. Others were less flexible. I am always open about my disability and discuss everything with my co-trainers from the very beginning, but some MCTs do not feel confident enough to do things differently or experiment with a new schedule that would be more convenient to me.â€™â€™
Many with disabilities are ambitious, but I would describe Radwa as driven. Not only has she gone on to become an established tutor, but she has also presented at IATEFL and Nile TESOL conferences, written, advised Cambridge Teaching Awards on policy towards disabled candidates, designed her own website, founded her own online school, and followed a second passion with a view to adapting language teaching methodology to the teaching of music. Radwaâ€™s story is one of successfully overcoming a disability to achieve ambitions. She does not, however, use her impairment for personal branding but shares it only when needed to help in effecting change. Naturally, she believes that training courses should include input on inclusive education and helping students with special needs, but on her own CELTA experience, she concludes:
â€˜â€™In retrospect, I believe the affective factor played the biggest part in my accomplishments. I had already established confidence in my ability and developed my knowledge and skills in the field through study and practice, but the challenge of CELTA required a boost of confidence and determination, fostered by the people I worked with. Their understanding and reassurance made all the difference. The message, then, is that with the right support from the right people, together with a positive attitude, disability can be overcome.â€™â€™
|Radwa Younis is a freelance CELTA tutor based in Cairo, Egypt. She has been working in English Language teaching for more than 10 years and has spoken at conferences such as IATEFL and Nile TESOL. Her interests centre on brain-based studies of language and music. She is the first approved visually impaired CELTA trainer.|