Have you ever taken a class where the instructor began speaking with a strong accent and you wondered if that would affect your ability to learn?

Have you ever been taught a physical skill by someone with a physical difference in relation to you? Did you wonder if you would learn as well from them as from someone with the same physical abilities as you?

As a student, we wonder these things and in turn, employers wonder if students wonder these things. Employers must consider both client and staff comfort. Their business depends on smooth service delivery, happy staff and satisfied clients. When hiring staff, they take this into account and will not hire someone that they think will not be a “good fit”, in other words, will cause them or their clients discomfort.

What does this mean for people who have a noticeable difference and who are looking for employment, especially as instructors of a topic they are passionate about?

I’m certain that we all advocate for hiring employees who have any sort of disability or difference and yet, these individual often struggle to find employment that suits their interests in Canada, the United States and beyond.

My hope is that this post addresses these concerns by giving employers some tools to feel more confident in hiring instructors with differences that could be seen to impact the learning experience of students.

In general, the employer’s responsibilities are to ensure that the instructor’s difference is accommodated for and that the instructor is comfortable setting students’ minds at ease about their ability to teach the material competently. Below are 5 things to keep in mind as you strive to accomplish this.

5 Tips for Employers & Instructors with a Difference

  1. The instructor and employer will need to accept and embrace the difference. This person will always be the same person with the same difference. For example, a person who stutters will always be a person who stutters, even on days when the stuttering is not outwardly noticeable.
  2. The instructor and employer should feel open to discuss the difference with each other. The instructor is the most knowledgeable about what works and does not work with regards to their difference. The instructor is the expert here and should be treated as such. For example, an instructor who has a hearing loss is the only person who knows what they can hear, what conditions get in the way of their ability to understand, and what supports they may need to ensure that they can communicate effectively with students.
  3. The employer must realize that for communication-related differences, the instructor’s communication may vary from day to day. Certainly, the instructor has likely learned some techniques that help to communicate more clearly that they may use when possible. Some days a person who stutters or a person with a strong accent will be able to speak more clearly or techniques will be working well. Other days will not go as smoothly. That is not their fault and is typically out of their control! Check out Megan Washington’s TED talk on being a person who stutters and a musician.
  4. The employer needs to know that the instructor will feel comfortable addressing their difference with students. If the instructor’s difference is not discussed, it may become a taboo topic that will be a distraction for students during instruction. The more comfortable that a person feels about their difference, the more comfortable the listeners will feel. This is perfectly demonstrated by Maysoon Zayid in her TED talk on being a woman with cerebral palsy.
  5. The instructor should be the one to talk to students about their difference(s), NOT the employer. If the employer tries to address the subject with students and the instructor does not, this will undermine the students’ confidence in the instructor. The instructor will be best able to set students’ minds at ease that they know what they are doing and they know best how to accommodate their difference. In the eyes of the students, the employer has already shown confidence in the instructor’s capacity to teach by hiring them.

4 Tips for Instructors on Communicating Directly with Students about their Difference(s)

  1. Start a class with a new group with business-as-usual, casually mention your difference and how you expect students to react. For example, if you are a person who stutters, allow yourself to stutter (or incorporate purposeful stuttering), then casually mention something like, “Oh, and I stutter sometimes so it’s helpful if you wait patiently for the stuttering to pass then refocus on what I’m saying. It does not help if you try to encourage me to breathe or take my time.”
  2. Directly mention that you recognize that your difference could be distracting for students at times (without being apologetic) and encourage students to focus on what you are saying. For example, a person with a strong accent may say, “I know that my accent is different than yours and you might not always understand what I’ve said. Please let me know if you missed something so that I can clarify.” Having visual supports, like a whiteboard, can help clarify as needed.
  3. Frequently ask students to summarize what has just been said. This is a common teaching technique anyway but could be used more than usual. This will keep students working to focus on the message, not the difference. For example, an instructor with a facial tic may notice that a student’s eyes have glazed over as they stare at the instructor, which may be because they are focused on the repetitive twitching. The instructor can ask the student to repeat back what was just said, encouraging the student to keep focused for the next time they are asked to summarize what the instructor has said!
  4. Address any physical limitations early on so that you can explain what kinds of accommodations you will make in your instruction. For example, if you have a prosthetic arm, you may say, “If I’m demonstrating a move, I’ll ask one of you to show me the move back to make sure it was clear and to provide a second demo.”

As a final perk, remember that your students have differences too, many of which are not visible to you. Hiring a more diverse set of instructors will lead to a more diverse and accepting student body!

Employers, go forth and hire diverse instructors who are passionate and competent! Differences do not need to be a barrier to their employment or to the students’ experiences.

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