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Service Learning Program Gives Students Insight into Disabilities

Video by Alfonso Velasquez
Assoc. Prof. Bridget Marshall's Disabilities in Literature class focuses on learning outside the classroom during their service learning trip to the Lowell Association for the Blind.

Class Gets Literate in Blindness with LAB Visit

Service Learning LAB

A student in Bridget Marshall’s Disability in Literature class tries to navigate a hallway during a recent visit to the office of Lowell Association for the Blind in downtown Lowell. Photo by Meghan Moore.

By David Perry

In one room, blindfolded students test their pouring accuracy.

In the next room, a group investigates braille. 

Another group interviews a Chelmsford woman with a service dog that helps get her where she needs to go. And down the hallway of Lowell Association for the Blind (LAB), students stumble and inadvertently swat their way through a lesson in using a cane. 

But the group is also stepping into the community, and Assoc. Prof. Bridget Marshall of the English Department says it’s no accident her Disability in Literature class is packed to its limit of 35 students every fall semester. The class discusses everyone from Temple Grandin to Helen Keller and it delves into the worlds of those with cerebral palsy, spinal injuries, autism, Alzheimer’s and other conditions.

Marshall is dedicated to the notion that “stories matter.”

Here, she thought when she put together the program and began teaching it in the fall 2008, is a chance to give students simultaneous exposure to stories on the page and the screen, and a comparison to people who really live them. Her goal is to use literature as a tool for gaining perspective into the lives of people with disabilities.

The class is one in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Services minor in Disability Studies.

“Students are very passionate about this,” says Marshall. “Many of them work in a social setting or have a family member with a disability. And some are affected by these things themselves.”

By heading into the community to learn from those without sight, students not only have first-hand accounts to compare to the physical, emotional, social and mental disabilities portrayed in the books they study, but they also have an opportunity to engage in service learning in the city.

It’s another tentacle the university is extending into its college town, and the course’s credit options include six hours of reading periodicals for the region’s blind who tune into LAB’s radio programming.

LAB’s executive director, Elizabeth Cannon, knows UMass Lowell – she earned her degree in Administration of Law and Justice here in 1981.

“You just feel the energy in here when the students come in,” says Cannon. “And it gives them a chance to experience in real life what they’re studying.”

Scanning the rooms and hallways, Marshall says there are hardly any English majors in the class. There’s a psychology major, exercise physiology, criminal justice. 

“Folks are going to encounter disabilities in any job they do. In every place they go. And it’s the minority that any one of us can become a part of in our lives,” says Marshall.

“It’s really good they’re being educated about service dogs,” notes Maria Floria-Schroeder of Chelmsford, who was deemed legally blind a decade ago. She has brought her service dog of seven and a half years, Legacy, to share with the class. “Too many people don’t understand about service dogs. And it’s hard when you have to explain that no, you can’t pet the dog even though he’s just sitting there. But he’s on duty and he can get distracted by the attention. Once his harness is on, he’s at work.

“He pretty much keeps me safe,” she says. “We walk around puddles, avoid obstacles, cross streets at lights, and Legacy keeps me out of danger.”

Marshall, whose father suffered from ALS (“so there’s something of a personal motivation”), says she also has an interest in social justice issues.

Three years ago, she integrated service-learning into the class. Service learning, says Marshall, allows students to serve the community through a practical learning experience that usually takes them out of the classroom.

Alex Keiver, junior psychology major, says he has worked with children with autism spectrum disorder as an intern at the Paul Center in Chelmsford. 

“This really lets you put your feet in other people’s shoes,” he says. “It’s experiential learning and no matter what you do in life, you’re going to deal with all kinds of human beings. And this puts a lot of things in perspective for me.”

Christy Forsman took Marshall’s class last year. Now, she works at LAB.

“I loved this class,” she says. “I love how it dissects poetry, novels and movies. And when I started working here, I immediately thought, 'This is what I’m going to do.' ”