AccessRoo: Accessibility

A new column where we talk about disability and share our thoughts on what we need access to as professors, researchers and colleagues. If you have an idea or topic that you would like us to talk about, please send an email to 


Matthew Edwards

I am an Associate Professor of Spanish in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. I teach courses that primarily focus on Latin American literature and culture, as well as Spanish language classes in our introductory sequence. I am a non-native speaker, and I like to begin the first day of classes talking about how and why I am here—or there—in front of them, as their professor.  I always talk about the importance of Study Abroad, of learning how to feel different and why that is important, of wanting something else, and of Latin America being exactly that—something else: at least for me. I talk about the family I have today: the significance, for me, of living in a biracial, bilingual home and of how my now intentional, intimate ties with those countries that lie south of our borders have made me a staunch ally to all immigrants, and to struggles for social justice across the board.  I had always felt that my story needed to connect me to what I do—both in the classroom and beyond its doors. And my experiences in Latin America and my familial ties to the region are often considered, I think, as a rite of passage that allows me to connect with my colleagues and students in unique ways through a shared nostalgia and longing for something that is hard to put my finger on.

It wasn’t until two years ago that I started modifying my introductory blurb. I finally began to tell my students that I am blind.  Blind is a broad term that includes many ocular diseases and degenerative conditions. In many cases it does not mean complete lack of sight, or blackness. For me, it means an underdeveloped optic nerve, low vision, and adaptive technology.  My decision to tell my students—and colleagues for that matter— coincided with my promotion to tenure, and has produced a shift in my research agenda towards Critical Disability Studies and motivated the creation of the Disability Alliance group on campus.  I started to be more open about my disability largely because I was tired of trying to see, of faking it, and of feeling bad when I got everything wrong. In academia, and at UMKC, a lot of what we do, and are asked to do, as professors depends on our efficiency and effectiveness as creative, critical thinking able-bodied teachers and researchers. We must produce SCH and we must add lines to our CV: time is often of the essence and being disabled occupies your time in strange ways.  It is hard to be blind when there is no space for getting lost, for delays, for finding oneself—in the dark.

In class, I now spend quite a lot of time throughout the semester talking—in Spanish, of course— about what I don’t see.  I ask for help, I ask for patience, and students are very understanding and eager to offer a hand. If fact, they now share their stories of difference, of bodiedness, in class for all to hear. We do still follow my syllabi, but we also dedicate time to hearing about work, about life as a student-parent, about taking time away from class to travel South and to cross the borders that make some of their lives so difficult. Not everyone wishes to share. But, I remember many of their stories, and they influence how I structure my assessment strategies and guide my student learning outcomes.

This sequence of events has shown me that my students have always needed access to my story, and that they benefit from knowing who I really am. And although I do not have hard data to say that sharing my personal life with anyone actually helps me in any way, I can say that speaking openly about my disability has changed how I engage with people on campus. 

As a disabled person, I am constantly made aware of how I “access” and gather information, how I engage with people and pass through spaces.  And while accessibility for many is a wheelchair ramp, an email with embedded hyperlinks, or a Youtube video with captions, I would like to argue that it is also much more. By giving access to my story, I was able to create a space for others, and through it access essential information necessary for me to accommodate their differences. There is a reciprocal action here that interests me. Here, the give and take between differences can help us understand the benefits of accessibility, thought large. Making yourself—your class, your workspace—accessible is not easy. It definitely is not for me. But people notice accessibility: the documents, captioned videos and revealing stories say something about who you are, and that message helps others. It communicates a sensitivity to equity and inclusion, and an acceptance of the diverse peoples with whom we share space. This message motivates others to share, to open up and give us access.  The circle continues. But it is up to us to share.