This article will discuss teaching using mediated communication and the advantages to students of this experience in their initial exposure to disability studies. I am an instructor for an Introduction to Disability Studies class at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Given my speech disability, I'm not your average instructor; I use an alternative mode of communication, or mediated communication, to communicate and, so, to teach at the university level. My two main communication methods include a letter board (accessed with a head-pointer and the use of an interpreter), and a speech device. The letter board is an array of letters, numbers and most frequently used words. My interpreter re-voices the letters or words that I indicate using a pointer attached to a bicycle helmet that I wear. My speech device, the ECOpoint™, is an eye-gaze system; the letter or word on the display screen upon which I focus is selected and spoken aloud. With this form of mediated communication, I do not require an interpreter. I use both methods of communication in class.

This article will include the perspectives of my co-teacher, several students and my interpreter about the use of mediated communication to teach the introductory course of the new Disability Studies Minor at NAU. A co-teaching arrangement has allowed me to take a direct role in creating and delivering content foundational to disability studies. Also discussed will be the advantages of one—to-one interviews that I conduct with each of my students, as well as the overall instructional value of utilizing mediated communication in university classrooms, particularly in the disability studies field.

Before proceeding, please follow this link to view a Wangeman and Mahosky Interview [http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/knau/news.newsmain/article/8068/0/1796281/Inquiring.Minds/Inquiring.Minds.-.Disability.Studies]


Mediated communication is "communication that involves a process by which a message, or communication, is transmitted via some form or medium" (Pavlik and McIntosh, 2004, p.70). Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is the term most often used in the disability arena to refer to a modality of mediated communication. When communication occurs between individuals, one of whom uses AAC, the success of the interaction depends heavily on the interpretive skills of the communication partner (Kent-Walsh & McNaughton, 2005).

How is the interaction within a classroom setting influenced when one of the instructors uses AAC as the sole means of communicating and delivering course content? How do students view this form of communication when it is used in a university classroom? As you will glean from the article, I have felt that the greatest barrier, professionally, to being recognized as a capable, competent and contributing individual has been my speech disability. The experience of co-teaching this Introduction to Disability Studies class, however, presents this previously conceived barrier as an asset. Now entering the third academic year of its offering, the collective contribution of two instructors, an interpreter, and nearly one hundred undergraduates has resulted in the recognition of the Introduction to Disability Studies class as a vibrant, engaging and dynamic course that is in demand at NAU.

Learning to Communicate

Growing up with a significant disability helped shape my outlook on life. However, it was my lack of speech and my reliance upon mediated communication that set me apart, even from my peers with disabilities. Stigma towards individuals who lack verbal output is high, and according to Smart, 2010, "… the hierarchy of stigma toward certain disabilities also determines the type of social life PWDs [people with disabilities] will enjoy" (p. 199). As a very young child I felt the discrimination of people towards me because I could not "talk." I consider myself extremely fortunate to have received an academic education from an early age, and to have had teachers so creative that they empowered me with the gift (admittedly at times, the curse) of expressive communication.

I went to residential schools for "crippled children" back in the 70's and early 80's, and despite the negative perception of such institutions, the therapists and staff provided me with the tools I needed to learn and grow into an effective communicator. By the age of four, I was using a board with simply drawn pictures. These pictures represented common activities such as eating, drinking, going potty, going to sleep, playing, watching TV—many of the things that a young child would want or need to do in a day. Using my hands, I would point to the pictures on my board, indicating to the person reading my board what I wanted or needed at that particular moment. Building on successful rudimentary expressive communication, the staff paired words with the pictures on my board and thus, I learned to read. By the age of seven or eight, my board consisted solely of words and letters on a sheet of paper that was taped onto a tray fitted to my wheelchair, similar to the letter board I use today.

Today, my primary means of communication is the use of a pointer attached to a bicycle helmet with which I indicate letters on the board affixed to my tray. I also have an ECOpoint™ Eye-Gaze text-to-speech communication device that I use primarily for presentations that require me to deliver a large amount of content in a relatively short time. I spend many hours programming the ECOpoint™ to give a talk or lecture just twenty minutes in length. Each situation presents communicative opportunities and challenges; identifying the most effective modality is an evolving strategy.

Teaching with mediated communication

Although my use of mediated communication is very successful and most of my colleagues consider it 'normal,' or specific to me, I exist as a communication anomaly in the classroom and in the broader social context. Each daily excursion is one modeling communication as well as disability. People approach me and ask, "How does this work?" referring to my pointer and board. Yet, despite their curiosity, when I point to the letters in answer to their query, most people are unable to read my board without the facilitation provided by an interpreter. During my college career at the University of California at Berkeley, I was struck by the fact that any communicative interaction with the majority of my professors required the use of an interpreter. This confounded me and I would think, "Can they not read?" This countered a lifetime of experience developing an effective, albeit alternative, style of communication with the realization that my method of communication was so different that most people were discouraged from ever engaging in conversation with me.

As one who relies upon mediated communication, I have to quickly assess my communication partner and adapt accordingly my choice of language to most effectively convey my ideas. It is par for the course that people base their perception of me, of my knowledge and my abilities, upon their own facility in communicating with me or upon their perception of my interpreter. It is often that in order to effectively convey or illustrate a complex idea, I must do so in simple language to assist my communication partner in understanding the subject. I relish the occasions when my communication partner is seemingly in sync with my thoughts. These interactions are smooth and efficient, and I can use the breadth of my vocabulary to convey precisely my intent.

As we developed this class, I hoped that I could be involved in delivering part of the content, though it wasn't until two weeks before the start of the semester that I realized I had failed to conceptualize the reality of how I could be an effective co-teacher in light of my speech disability. I was concerned that undergraduates may not be as polite as the captive audiences in conference settings whom I had most often addressed, especially once the novelty of my uniqueness wore off. My co-instructor and I had discussed that we wanted the class to be more of a conversation among our students rather than lecturing to them about disability. I arranged for an interpreter for the class periods because an interpreter allows for greater efficiency and real-time communication.

During that first semester, we did not have a clear idea of how the interaction among the instructors, the interpreter, and the twenty-four students in the classroom would unfold. We met before each class to discuss who would take the lead in facilitating the conversation that day. We learned so much during that first semester, not the least of which was the recognition that the communication structure in the classroom would continually evolve as we considered what worked best to facilitate dynamic discussions. The one-to-one student interviews, first conducted a year later, were helpful in further clarifying the elements of mediated communication and class discussion that they found most engaging.

The co-instructor and interpreter view of mediated classroom communication

Katherine Mahosky (co-instructor) and John McDermott (interpreter) both have long histories of working with individuals with disabilities. Katherine's career as a speech-language pathologist has allowed her many opportunities to assist individuals with their communication skills. John's career as an advocate has provided him with the insight and experience of disability which, when coupled with an innate sense of nonverbal communication, equal the makings of an astute interpreter.

Katherine Mahosky — Co-instructor

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I have experience communicating with those who use alternative or augmented methods to communicate. When the Institute for Human Development was preparing to launch a minor in Disability Studies and I was approached to teach the introductory course, I had no hesitation in asking Matthew Wangeman to co-instruct with me. Matthew and I had worked together on another project at the Institute, and I had previously interacted with Matthew when he brought his son to see me for a speech and language evaluation.

Matthew's two methods of communicating information to students in our class utilize distinct pedagogical devices, while engaging in the teaching and learning dyad. Through the use of his ECOpoint™ Eye-Gaze system, Matthew can "deliver" content on a number of topics similar to how I might deliver a lecture verbally. This has the advantage of delivering important content in an efficient manner to students, while allowing students the ability to ask questions and comment on aspects of the content being delivered. This mediated communication method can mirror more common forms of delivering content found in college classrooms, such as podcasts or audio enhanced Power Points. Matthew's other form of communication—a low-tech, alphabet board that he points to with a pointer strapped to a bicycle helmet, while being "read" by an interpreter—provides for a spontaneous interface with the students as we create a "natural, critical learning environment" (Bain, 2004, p. 99) where students are learning to think critically about issues raised in the course.

While the use of the ECOpoint™ system can efficiently deliver content in a traditional "lecture," it does not allow for real-time exchange of content if circumstances within the classroom warrant it, and it has the quality of a prepared speech or lecture that students are sometimes hesitant to "interrupt." The low-tech communication board on the other hand, fits our teaching methods better, in that we strive to create a conversation about topics within the class, and in doing so, Matthew can spontaneously participate with comments and by asking questions as they naturally flow within the conversation. Although, this method is slower and demands patience on the part of the class for his communication to be heard, we have increased the participation of students by having Matthew's board broadcast on a video monitor so students may 'read' along with the interpreter. This video monitoring, which we added last year, has increased students' attention to Matthew while he is speaking.

John McDermott — Interpreter

Somewhere in between the sender (Matthew) and the receiver (students) exists the content for an Introduction to Disability course. For those familiar with Matthew, effective communication may include a few more steps, but generally does not hinder or impede his message or the receiver's interpretation. For those unfamiliar with Matthew's forms of communication, impediments manifest upon introduction to Matthew and until description, guidance and exercise in interpreting are incorporated, there exists a barrier to his message. Few people intently and actively embrace in conversation with Matthew when first meeting him. Curiosity may drive the interaction, but rarely suffices for meaningful conversation — imagine this as akin to learning a new language and visiting foreign terrain. For the students in the class, within the structure of a classroom, meeting their co-instructor for the first time allows for the surfacing of self-constructed and socially constructed perspectives on disability. Students are challenged to question their own core perspectives that have been left dormant or unexamined about the inclusion of people with disabilities. What better vantage point and springboard could be asked for in teaching disability studies?

Learning a new communicative method places the student in the middle of the action. Integral to comprehension, and significant in that the stage has been set between two humans, the process of communication is not complete until the message is understood. Matthew's display of information includes a letter board and an AAC device called ECOpoint™. Both serve different instances as described above, and both provide uncharted territory for exploration and mapping. Matthew's letter board is primary in his communication and is wholly dependent on the interpreter. Basic skills, such as spelling and reading, are necessary for interaction, but rarely sufficient for interpretive fluency. Other elements of an interpretive skill set include: staying within context, word projection (speed), sentence projection (speed), use of conversational tone when interpreting, natural conversational pacing (paralanguage), taking notice of Matthew's gestures of guidance, and engaging within a personal space (looks, listens, contributes) in conversation.

When interpreting through his letter board, the students are proximal to the disability and a vital component to the success of their shared process. It is this initial introduction that takes disability from being outside or removed from the student and situates it front and center to the experience. It is in this tentative first step by the student, who is attempting to interpret, that Matthew assesses and adjusts his delivery. In fact, similar to any conversation, Matthew fine-tunes his message and questions to ameliorate the effectiveness of his communication with regard to receiver. In easing the anxiety or tentativeness, the conversation begins to feel and looks like any conversation. Considering the prevalence of mediated communication that exists within this information age, we see that formative skills in communication are changing and adapting to allow for different channels of expression, and that a relational intimacy, social information exchange, or conveyance of a message may involve a higher degree of personalization, but does not limit the context of the message. Students may stall for the briefest of moments, but they witness and experience that the process of communication, in itself, does not change, but only becomes more nuanced in its form and delivery. A significant attitudinal barrier has been addressed and the flow of information ensues. From this point forward, a clear channel is established in the exchange, and details of the message can permeate the students' minds.

Student Perspectives

In the fall of 2009, during the inaugural Introduction to Disability Studies class at NAU, we had not yet considered conducting interviews with the students. My colleagues and I were busy making sure we covered what we felt was the most vital information of this introductory course. Although we felt the class was successful, we recognized that some students did not fully discern the concept of the disability experience and the relevance of disability studies in contemporary society.

The following summer I pondered how we could help students gain, in addition to a more personal experience with disability, a true grasp of the crux of disability studies. The idea of one-to-one interviews was the way in which we felt students could connect to the disability experience by conversing with me directly in a structured, but informal manner using mediated communication. However, I did not want this interview to simply be a "disability simulation" where students imagine what it is like to have a communication disability. My goal for the students during these interviews was that they would come to see their interaction with me using mediated communication as being just like meeting with any other professor at NAU to engage in an intellectual discussion. To this end, the interviews helped students realize disability as a socially constructed phenomenon, and helped them come to recognize disability as registering on the spectrum of "typical." I also believe that these interviews facilitated the students' comfort level with any person, regardless of ability. Many students reported that at the beginning of class they assumed they could never communicate with me, yet by the end of the semester, they were initiating conversation with me independent of an interpreter.

Students signed up for one 30-minute time slot following a regular class meeting time to participate in the one-to-one interview. Each student needed to come prepared to answer questions pertaining to material addressed in class readings or discussions and, although my interpreter was present, the intent was that the interaction occurred directly between the student and myself. I began with simple questions such as, "How do you like the class?" and "Why did you take this class?" so students could become comfortable in reading my board. I continued with the following questions: "Have you had experience with people with disabilities?" and most importantly, "Why should we study the field of disability studies and not just study disabilities?" This latter question addressed our concern regarding the students' critical grasp of the core content of the course and what we hoped all students would garner in terms of an understanding of the sociocultural construction of disability. If students could adequately answer this last question, I would follow with questions such as: "How can we change this society to be more open to people with disabilities?" or "Why do you think our society views people with disabilities as it does?" These two questions were asked to engage the student's thought process about the interplay between society and people with disabilities. To conclude, I asked about the student's experience of my using AAC. For example, "Have you ever had a teacher who used a different form of communication?" This provided an opportunity to elicit feedback on their perceptions of the different modalities of mediated communication used in the classroom.

My interpreter filmed the interviews so that we could later review the interactional style that occurred during each exchange and to maintain a record of student responses to the questions. About half of the class of twenty-one students displayed initial hesitation to engage in a conversation with me that was not facilitated by my interpreter. However, even the most tentative students became less intimidated during the course of the interview, and every student was successful in reading my board independently. The videos illustrate a shift in student affect as each interview progresses; the students moved closer to me and there was an observable relaxation in their manner and tone.

The interviews were structured using the same questions posed to each student. However, it was the student's answers that shaped the conversation framed by each question. During the course of the discussion, it became obvious that students no longer gave conscious thought to the inherent awkwardness of our communication; rather, they focused on the content of that communication. Ultimately, the students saw me as any other instructor at NAU who expected them to engage in a conversation about class content.

I would like to highlight some of the student responses. To the question, why society views people with disabilities in a negative way, one student responded, "…because we are carrying on traditions from a less evolved society" (Conte, 2011). Another student said my ECOpoint™ Eye-Gaze system was less emotive and she preferred it when I used my letter board because my personality was evident when I communicated in that manner. At the end of the interviews I asked students if they had questions for me. One student asked, "Why do you let students call you by your first name" (Wright, 2011)? This student felt that I should be addressed as Mr. Wangeman, a manner connoting the equivalent respect shown other instructors at NAU. An important point, highlighted by some of the student's answers, was that for a disability studies class to be most relevant, people with disabilities need to be in prominent roles in creating and delivering class content. These one-to-one interviews have been a valuable addition to our course and have enhanced our ability to make disability studies germane to the students' world. (Refer to Appendix A for a link to the video of interviews).


Teaching the Introduction to Disability Studies class using mediated communication via two distinct methods of AAC has facilitated our students' understanding of disability within the socio-cultural context of the human experience. Initial concern over the barrier presented by my speech disability tempered my excitement at the prospect of delivering the burgeoning content of an introductory disability studies course and of introducing my undergraduate students to a field of study with which they were completely unfamiliar. I was not confident that I would be able to bridge that barrier with the students to become an effective instructor at the university level. Co-teaching the Introduction to Disability course at NAU has afforded me the opportunity to turn a life-long barrier into an effective catalyst to enhance student learning.

The interviews provided a fundamental experience for the students to engage in conversation using AAC. Whereas they had long recognized a continuum of ability, this was, for many, their initial experience with disability and a pivotal one to allow them to fully assimilate disability as an aspect of the very continuum to which they had long ascribed. This was a new perception of disability for most, and it began to deconstruct the previously held notion of a medical model. The students, by observing the subtle shift of their own perception from disability as a lack of ability to disability as an aspect of ability, were then able to extrapolate this paradigm shift to a wider social context. Thus, the notion of disability as a complex, socially constructed phenomenon was catalyzed.

Katherine Mahosky, John McDermott and I have effectively employed and modeled mediated communication as advantageous in a learning environment at a university. The field of disability studies was envisioned as an agent of social change. Dissociating the study of disability from a social and cultural context belies the true experience of the individual and fails to recognize people with disabilities as a cultural constituency of our society. Mediated communication proved a powerful teaching vehicle; it engaged each student and encouraged them to experience the Introduction to Disability Studies class. Through the use of mediated communication, Disability Studies has come alive at Northern Arizona University.

Works Cited

  • Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. United States of America: President and Fellows of Harvard College.
  • Conte, A. (2011). One to One Interview. Spring semester.
  • Kent-Walsh, J. & McNaughton, D. (2005). Communication partner instruction in AAC: Present practices and future directions. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 21(3), 195-204.
  • Pavlik, J. & McIntosh, S., (2004). Converging media: An introduction to mass communication.
  • Smart, J. (2009). Disability, society, and the individual, 2nd ed. Austin,TX: Pro-Ed.
  • Stevens, B. (2011). Inquiring Minds: A production of KNAU. "http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/knau/news.newsmain/article/8068/0/1796281/Inquiring.Minds/Inquiring.Minds.-.Disability.Studies
  • Wright, B. (2011). One to One Interview. Spring semester.

Appendix A

Video of DIS 201 Interviews: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nxxeVSygkc

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Copyright (c) 2011 Matthew Wangeman, Katherine Mahosky, John McDermott, Tanya Anderson

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