Did you ever watch or read X-Men? If so, you would be familiar with the character Cyclops. As is true for all X-Men, he’s a mutant. Cyclops’ eyes emit a laser-like beam and he wears special glasses to prevent his eyes from unintentionally hurting others; without the glasses, he can’t control the light coming from his eyes.
I found out around the age of 14 or 15 I needed glasses for distance. At first, I wore them in class to see the board, and then I wore them while driving. Over a few years I felt like even though I only needed them for distance, I always had them on so when I was in my very early twenties I decided to have Lasik. I figured since I was so young and my eyes would only get worse, the cost of the surgery would be no more than what I would pay for glasses over the course of my lifetime. I will spare you the gory details about the surgery since it’s not for the faint of heart. Even so, it was worth every penny! To say the surgery was miraculous is an understatement. Within about ten minutes' time, I went from having to wear glasses pretty much all the time to never needing them again. In ten minutes!
Last year was the twenty-year anniversary of having the surgery. Around that time, while in a Zoom meeting with remote teachers, I noticed one of them was wearing glasses. “I didn’t know you wore glasses,” I commented.
“I don’t really,” she said. “These are blue-light-blocking glasses. I’m on my screen all day and I thought I’d try them to see if they help with my eye fatigue.”
“Do they work,” I wondered?
“I think so!” she said encouragingly.
At that time I had noticed my eyes felt fatigued too. It really manifested as headaches for me so I thought the blue-light-blocking glasses were worth a shot. After receiving them, I tried them out to see if they helped my headaches. I also change the settings on my computer to turn on the “night light” setting to block the blue light. Despite these efforts, my headaches persisted and I decided it was time to go for an eye exam.
I have to confess. I was nervous. It had been years since I visited an eye doctor. I didn’t want to have to wear glasses again and I wasn’t sure if my better-than-20/20-vision was withstanding the test of time. Long story short, there was good news and bad news. The good news was my vision, while not better than 20/20 was 20/20; my distance vision was fine. The bad news was I needed to buy readers. Age. That’s what the doctor said. When I asked if there was surgery for distance he said I’d have to wait until I’m 70 and need cataract surgery. So, as I’m writing this, I’m wearing my readers and don’t have a headache.
What I know about my glasses—the ones I needed when I was younger for distance and the ones I need now for reading—is they were an accommodation that never gave me the ability to see better than someone who didn’t wear glasses. The accommodation simply allowed me to see as well as someone who didn’t need glasses. Though it would be cool if I had, I’ve never met a mutant in my whole life, which is to say I never met anyone who had glasses that made their vision better than someone who didn’t need glasses.
In schools, we have a range of students with disabilities (SWDs) who need literal accommodations to figuratively see. Accommodations could include things like “directions repeated” or “extended time” or “preferential seating.” Accommodations could be “separate location” or “written notes” or even “a scribe.” What’s important to note is for many SWDs who are in general education settings, their accommodations are intended to level the playing field. This means when the directions are repeated or the extended time is provided, the SWD is supposed to perform as well as a student who didn’t need the accommodation at all. The accommodation does not mean the SWD should still lag behind their general education peer. Even so, it is very common to hear a teacher lament, “Well, they’re a special education kid.” I've also heard teachers say about a whole class, “Well that’s the class with all of the special education kids.” What someone means by that statement is, “of course they’re behind,” and that is unconscious bias. To label kids based on their need and not expect them to be able to perform based on that need even when the need is accommodated harms the student. (By the way, among other things, I would say if the accommodation is not leveling the playing field, it is worth exploring if the accommodation is sufficient to meet the student’s need—but that’s a conversation for another day.)
The problem with unconscious bias is certainly the part about the bias. You don't need to have superpowers to see that treating people negatively (or positively) simply based on superficial, subjective traits is wrong. The other problem with unconscious bias is the unconscious part. Our lack of awareness of the harm we’re causing, however, does not lessen the outcome of harm. This is why I’m writing about this. I hope to bring a level of awareness to at least start a conversation. After all, as the saying goes, “seeing is believing.” So, what do you see now that you didn’t see before?
P.S. This week's Catch of the Week is this video by Brother Jeff S. Fard on unconscious bias. What I love best about the video is that it notes how, by the very nature of unconscious bias, is the fact we all have it and we don't know what we don't know because it is unconscious. I really appreciated the simplicity of this AHA and I wonder what you think.