From a Simple Request to National Impact
Claire Özel is Disability Coordinator at METU English Language Prep.School Ankara, Turkey.
Life never goes in straight lines, surprising you when you already have too much planned. Turkey 1995: An unexpected student took me off on what others saw as a dead end: “A blind student wanting to learn English? Don’t bother!” said the language school owner. But I did.
Ankara, 2000; 6th METU (Middle East Technical University) ELT convention, my second ever; a geneticist still not fitting the ELT mould, I was already branching off sideways - considering the foreign language learning strategies of visually impaired learners. Four years earlier, when I dared mention this possibility to colleagues at my new post (METU English Language Prep.School), I felt alone and unheard; “Nothing will change in Turkey, go home and watch soap operas…” was one response. On the other hand, the children at the school for the blind, and the handful of visually impaired METU students were hoping something would happen. In 1998, a blind METU student and I had jointly presented (1) at the 5th convention, rather shocking some teachers with the idea that blind learners could successfully tackle a foreign language as irregular in spelling as English. This time, in 2000, I was to describe something a little less direct, namely my experience with young learners at the School for the Blind in Ankara. At the crowded conference, I’d wanted to listen in more detail to a keynote speaker but to my disappointment his second slot clashed with mine; resignation, just not my luck... Few were considering me seriously, so why should Mario Rinvolucri be any different?
At coffee break, looking for a table to balance a cup, the man himself came up and wanted to talk to me! With only 5 minutes before eager teachers swarmed to their respective halls and rooms for the next parallel session, Mario urged me “Write! Don’t tell me…”. Having read my abstract, he wanted to hear what I had learnt myself during my visits to the school for the blind. Happy someone with his insight was interested, I was quite challenged by the prospect of writing; I have never written easily. Not only is it a painfully slow process, but I am also uncertain of the value of any output. However - for Mario - I set to it (2).
In his main talk, Mario had talked about the edge effect, the value of the interaction of ELT with other fields. The example was sufficiently parallel to the interact between foreign language learning and disability for me, for the biologist in me to have visions of life teaming at the edge of a pond, with species benefiting from the proximity of both media, switching as suited them between water and land, as a bilingual speaker flipping between languages. There would be skills and abilities, strategies and alternative approaches to discover in this new zone. Over the years, while I was at times alone or shunned by senior administrators, I was also supported by unexpected allies and endorsed by a growing number of disabled people of all ages.
Mario’s difference was that his rare mind could see potential where others saw distraction, or nothing relevant. Where others would have seen no association, Mario created connection and meaning. Mario, had you not persuaded me to write up what I had been doing out of curiosity, the stream that became a flood and then a sea of activity might have taken far longer to trickle into life. Once the concept of alternative ways of learning and teaching visually impaired students formed at METU’s Prep School, it broadened to address the needs of students who could be disadvantaged by any disability, as long as they disclosed. Later, Ifollowed them into their departments, initiating university-wide action.
In 2004 the British Council sponsored me on a UK Study Visit, to research how British universities were supporting their disabled students. On my return, I was nominated METU Disability Coordinator, becoming the first to work for access and inclusion at a Turkish university. In 2005, the new Turkish Disability Act required equality of opportunity at all levels of education, specifically naming higher education. Following a small but key EU project in 2007, we organised a meeting, playfully called “First Annual Turkish Workshop on Disability and University”. It has been held every single year since, with institutions queuing to host the event. In parallel, a small electronic platform was formed to allow country-wide communication between annual meetings. The platform now has around 560 members from universities across Turkey, with some Turkish speakers abroad. More importantly, we are cooperating with disabled people, working forwards to dismantle barriers and develop appropriate alternatives.
It took me months for the article “Give me Mistakes” to materialise. When I had a deaf student, a subsequent article, “Language İmpaired” (3), developed in under a year. Four years later, seeing my young neighbours struggling with their first English lessons, we developed an approach Sign language based approach for them to slıp into their first foreign language experience; “Signing into English” only took me a few months to finalise (4). It has now taken me under a week to get this text written: Could “How to mentor reticent learners through the pain and uncertainty of their first writing experiences” be another topic? HLTMag is just the site for me!
Some years later a call from a colleague announced “Mario is in Ankara and wants to see you”. We did. Sitting on the balcony, surrounded by flowers in the warm sun we brainstormed wildly. Mario’s “I’d love to have 5 people meet. You, someone in Brazil, someone in Budapest…” was interrupted by my excitement at my visit to Budapest the next month. Eva Jonai and I shared an unforgettable 24 hours, as if we’d known each other for ages. However, I never did find out who Mario’s other two were; I was left hungry, wondering… An unfinished sentence, unfinished business. Words flow into connections, as do minds. Unfinished, Infinity, Final, Grand finale, Fine… We may lose track of where things start, but certain moments remain ingrained in a memory. Some people you simply will never forget. Had I not been given this deadline to write up these memories, I may never have got round to realising how much Mario’s brief challenge had triggered.
How many of you - like Mario - have had the audacity to believe in someone’s Off-Track ideas? Nothing to lose, and so much to gain; go for it!
1 “What? A student with special needs in MY class?!” https://claireozel.wordpress.com/english/disability/disability-in-turkey/a-student-with-special-needs-in-my-class/
2 “Give me Mistakes” (2001. HLTM Vol 3/4) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/sep01/mart2.htm
3 “Language Impaired”, (2004, HLTM Vol 6/2) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/mar04/mart1.htm
4 “Signing into English: a Single-session Therapy with a Fearful Starter” (2007, HLTM Vol 9/1), http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jan07/less04.htm
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