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A UofGH student teaching educators how to keep accessibility in mind

Christopher Schiafone holds a model of the human brain

In pursuit of his own education, Christopher Schiafone has sometimes had to provide some education of his own to his teachers and peers about the challenges and opportunities faced by students with disabilities.

A fourth-year student in the University of Guelph-Humber’s Psychology program, Schiafone is completely blind with some light perception. Although his visual impairment has undoubtedly led to certain structural obstacles in his academic life – some of which are specific to the study of Psychology – he has also found many creative solutions that have allowed him to thrive at UofGH and beyond.

He has now been invited to share those insights at the Canadian Psychological Association’s 80th annual CPA National Convention, the largest convention of its kind in Canada, taking place May 31 to June 2 in Halifax.

Schiafone and his brother, UofGH Media Studies alumnus Brandon Schiafone, will together lead a discussion forum with educators based around their abstract, titled “Understanding the Needs of Disabled Students.”

“Our goal with this discussion is to educate faculty from across the country on ways that they can make course materials and learning more accessible to students with disabilities,” Schiafone said.

“Not everybody has had the experience of having a totally blind student in their class. They do not necessarily know the ways in which they have to adapt things. So I’ve made it my goal and my job to educate people on how best to provide an education in an adaptive way.”

Overcoming obstacles

Schiafone had earned a diploma in social service work before attending UofGH, and from that experience he knew he had an interest in mental health.

He discovered his passion for neuroscience during his second semester at UofGH, with help from an encouraging instructor, Dr. Mandy Wintink.

“Dr. Wintink was very accommodating. She found ways to do activities that were primarily visual in a tactile manner,” he recalled. “At the time, the University had just got the model of the human brain that I could use while studying. I got to learn many, many different things and I did quite well in the course and discovered an interest in it.”

The structural barriers Schiafone wants to probe at the CPA Convention are not exclusive to Psychology. For instance, most of his classes will feature teaching aids such as diagrams, charts, overheads and slides, all of which could prove troublesome for the visually impaired.

To illustrate how to help people learn some of these concepts in a tactile way, Schiafone and his co-presenter plan a hands-on experiential learning opportunity that they developed in a neuroscience class.

Christopher Shiafone with his service dog

“I did not actually think I would enjoy neuroscience because I thought it would be really difficult. But I was determined to see what I could do with it. I’ve actually gone a lot farther with things than I expected when I started here in September 2016. Part of that was being able to utilize tactile models, which we have available here in the Psychology department.”

Dr. Wintink has appreciated the “wonderful” experience she has had working with Schiafone, not only because he is a motivated learner and active student, but because he has indeed taught her valuable lessons in making education more accessible.

“It’s been a pleasure and a challenge working with Chris,” Dr. Wintink reflected. “I have to admit that when I first learned someone who was blind would be in my class, I was very nervous both of my ability to teach to the student and of the extra time I would need to change how I was delivering information. In the end, it was an extremely positive experience for me. It pushed me to be a better teacher by really thinking about how different people interacted with the material.

“I have always done more hands-on activities, but I went even deeper into those offerings. I also tend to have visually heavy slides with lots of diagrams, so when describing these diagrams and graphs, I had to better communicate what was on the slides so that Chris could imagine them. In the end, I think I simply did a better job of what I should have been doing all along. It was very uncomfortable but highly rewarding growth for me as a professor.”

Inspiring other students

Schiafone decided he wanted to immerse himself in campus life during his first year. He joined the Guelph-Humber Psych Society and eventually became the undergraduate campus representative for the Canadian Psychological Association. He also has a podcast that he creates with Dr. Wintink and two other students exploring various research subjects. He is also volunteering at UofGH’s upcoming Science Rendezvous.

Getting involved to such an extent helped ease his transition into a new environment.

“It was challenging at the beginning, because it was all new. With me, the part that was particularly challenging was trying to figure out how I could get involved and what sorts of things I could do. There are things that are harder to do because of the visual impairment, but I’m not limited in any way,” he said.

Christopher Schiafone smiles with his hand on his chin

“There are many, many different opportunities that have come up that I’ve been able to participate in.”

Schiafone has found that he loves participating in research projects, and as a result he is considering pursuing a Master’s degree upon graduation from UofGH. His research projects have looked at how visual processing works and how nutrition and exercise impact the brain.

Ultimately, it is not just educators that he hopes to reach with his message about creating an accessible learning environment. He also hopes to inspire other students to understand that their disabilities do not need to hold them back from pursuing an education.

“Considering how far I’ve come in the program so far, I think it’s definitely possible for someone who is blind or low-vision to take part in these scientific programs. That’s the message we want to deliver,” he said. “We want people to understand that yes, we may have total blindness or visual impairment – or any type of disability – but it’s not impossible to do.

“By us presenting at this conference, we are doing what we think is our part to try to help with education and furthering the opportunities both for faculty and future students.”