At the end of 2010, I completed my Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Washington (UW). At the UW, the policy for dissertations states that the last page is the vita—a short biography of the student. I began mine with the sentence: "For the first 10 years of her life, Katherine N. Deibel lived less than two blocks from a public library in Kentucky and, with the encouragement of her parents, was a frequent patron." I chose this opening as it reflects my great love of reading, and it was this love that brought me to my dissertation's topic on understanding the adoption and usage of assistive reading technologies by adults with reading disabilities (e.g., dyslexia).
Growing up, my conception of disability was hallmarked by the kids in special education. They were in school to learn basic life skills and nothing more. I lumped together all forms of disabilities into this group, including dyslexia. My background reading on dyslexia quickly corrected me on many of these misunderstandings, but the real education came when I began attending the meetings of the student disability advocacy group at the UW. I was interested in learning more about the social aspects of disabilities in order to design assistive technologies that better integrated with the lives of their users. By attending student disability advocacy group meetings, I began to interact with people with all sorts of disabilities. People in wheelchairs were no longer anonymous, background characters in my daily goings. Though it is a bit shameful now to admit this, I began seeing people with disabilities as people and not just their chairs, canes, or conditions.
The greatest lesson was about me, though. For years, I had dealt with depression and social interaction issues due to being on the autistic spectrum, although these conditions were not officially diagnosed until my second year of graduate school. This was several years before becoming interested in computers and reading disabilities, and my view towards my depression was as a burden that required therapy and medication. I avoided talking about it, hated how it ruled my life, and often thought of it as a personal failing. However, as I talked more and more with others with disabilities, I began to see my depression and anxiety issues differently. They were disabilities. My depression at times made it hard to maintain productivity as a graduate student. Social anxiety hindered my ability to network with colleagues and others at conferences. Moreover, I was not alone in all this, and what I needed was not a fix to myself but to discover how to accommodate for my weaknesses and take advantage of my strengths. This greatly changed how I perceived myself. Yes, my brain requires a daily medication in order for me to live a decent life, but it is no different than a person who uses a wheelchair. Yes, I brood over thoughts, but this intense scrutiny is what enables me to study in-depth whatever topics are of interest to me. I began to pursue this new view of my disabilities as part of my identity. In doing so, I learned a lot more about myself.
Beyond this gift of self-realization, I also found a new area of passion—disability advocacy. Although I had always held strong political opinions, I never had enough motivation to take action. Now, I cared about access issues and disability rights. I worked with a student disability advocacy group on campus issues. I became the graduate student representative on several university committees on disability issues. Always interested in good teaching, I became an advocate and promoter of inclusive teaching practices and have become known among the computer science education community as an expert on inclusion in computer science education.
All of this took place while I was still in graduate school. Disability had thus joined my passion with reading, and I was truly excited about my dissertation topic. Unfortunately, my thesis advisor at the time did not share this interest or passion and felt he was incapable of properly advising me. At that point I was ready to give up on my Ph.D., but some people encouraged me. One of these people was Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler—someone who shared and understood my passion for disability, technology, and education. She brought me into AccessComputing, a program located at the UW that provides resources to help students with disabilities pursue computing fields. AccessComputing is sponsored by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and DO-IT. AccessComputing is a place where I not only find help in my own life and teaching but has also become a place in which I contribute knowledge and understanding.
As my mentor, Dr. Burgstahler helped me find new advising and was always there in the background when I needed her. Importantly, she used her understanding of my disabilities in deciding how to mentor me. She knew that at times I would need to work on my own, so she would leave me alone for a bit but then contact me to make sure I was on the right track.
I did get on the right track. I determined how to best frame my dissertation research and completed it. At the time of this writing, I am looking for post-docs in educational research, and my goal is to become a professor in an education department and research and teach about the various intersections of disability, literacy, and technology. I still have challenges, but I know the path I want to take in life and have the knowledge and support to do so.